November 11, 2013
As Year Two of sequestration in the U.S. gets underway and the dust settles following October's partial government shutdown, the writing on the wall is both clear and ominous: FAA's new normal is not working.
The shutdown—which cut FAA's Office of Aviation Safety staff to 300 from 7,000 overnight—triggered 1,000 stop-work orders, delayed deliveries of airliners that could not be registered, cost repair stations thousands of dollars in delayed approvals and forced a major reshuffling of one airline's long-established plan to introduce a new aircraft type. All of this was piled on top of sequestration-related resource challenges that has delayed projects ranging from airline expansion to routine air traffic system hardware maintenance.
“It's hard to push the 'pause' button on a complicated and wide-scale operational agency like the FAA,” agency Administrator Michael Huerta told an industry gathering in late October. “Suddenly speeding it up or slowing it down—either direction—is extraordinarily disruptive. We operate most efficiently and effectively under conditions of certainty.”
The same can be said of industry operators. However, when it comes to regulatory support for all but the most critical jobs that FAA handles, uncertainty is about the only certainty that industry can count on.
This situation is “incredibly frustrating for us,” says Mark Dunkerley, CEO of Hawaiian Airlines, which has seen its planned start of turboprop operations delayed for months because FAA does not have the manpower to certify the new operation. “The strategic development of our business is being held hostage to the budget battles that are taking place.”
Allegiant thought it had a well-crafted plan to introduce seven Airbus A320s into its fleet starting in November. Plans to acquire the planes were revealed in December 2012, and the airline took possession of them in 2013. Crews were training in preparation for the start of operations from two Florida bases.
Then the shutdown came, and FAA furloughed inspectors needed to sign off on routine final details, like flight manuals and minimum equipment lists. Halfway through the 16-day shutdown, Allegiant went to Plan B, pushing back the A320 operational start dates until late 2013 or early 2014. The cost of flying older, smaller aircraft and rejiggering its crew placements could cost the airline $2 million, its executives estimate.
“The [FAA] shutdown couldn't have come at a worse time, in a sense,” says CEO Maurice Gallagher. “We were all prepped, ready to just start working with them, and they stopped.”