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How The Government Shutdown Is Impacting Airline Safety


Over the weekend, Houston's airport shut down one of its security checkpoints. Miami's airport briefly did the same. Around the country, TSA agents have been calling in sick after three weeks of working without pay. The government shutdown is now the longest in U.S. history. And to talk about the impact this has on airline safety, Todd Curtis joins us now. He's founder of airsafe.com. Welcome.

TODD CURTIS: Well, thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: The shutdown affects a lot of people who work in the aviation industry, from air traffic controllers to TSA agents and more. Let's start with TSA, the people who screen luggage. They've been working without pay. As we said, some airports are closing checkpoints. What impact does all of this have on safety?

CURTIS: Well, the impact on safety, or rather the risk to the passengers due to deliberate actions such as terrorism, I believe is minimal, if non-existent, because the shutting down of some of the terminals is indicative of a staffing issue, not a quality-of-staff issue. So far, there's no indication that the likelihood of the TSA preventing acts of terror from happening has dropped any.

SHAPIRO: So even though people are not being paid, they're doing the same job, checking the same bags. The lines might be longer, but we shouldn't expect that dangerous materials might get through.

CURTIS: That's correct. There are clearly some potential stresses that would come from - financial stresses, primarily - people who are going without paychecks. That may add more stress to the workplace, but there's no indication that that has been an issue so far.

SHAPIRO: What about air traffic controllers? They are also working without pay. That's been the case through Christmas and New Year's. At some point, does that start to affect passenger safety?

CURTIS: It's possible that it may affect air traffic controllers for the same reason the TSA may be affected. The fact that they're not getting paid doesn't reduce their quality of work. It may increase the stresses they may have from financial issues. So far, that hasn't been evident.

SHAPIRO: There are also people who work as aviation safety inspectors, and many of them are furloughed. They're not working without pay. They're just not working at all.

CURTIS: Well, these air safety inspectors, who may ride along in cockpits and oversee the operations of maintenance, et cetera, are there as a check and balance to make sure that the procedures that should be followed are being followed and that the regulations aren't being violated.

If they're not there, there may be a tendency of some to cut corners. That tendency is probably not going to be an issue because there's a level of professionalism in the aviation business, whether it's pilots, mechanics, et cetera, that would not tolerate deliberate actions that would be cutting corners or violating regulations.

SHAPIRO: Are there pressure points in the aviation industry - places that are being stressed by the shutdown - that passengers might not be aware of that could have an impact on traveler safety?

CURTIS: Well, getting back to the TSA situation, the most visible part of the TSA are the screeners at checkpoints. The TSA is more than just that. There are also people who are working out of sight, who are checking check bags, who have bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs to check baggage and such. All that is being done out of the sight of passengers.

There's no indication that there's any problem there. But as time goes on, it's unclear to me whether any part of TSA or other protective organizations, such as Customs and Border Protection, may have a stress level at such that the job isn't being done to the standard that passengers are used to.

SHAPIRO: You know, here in Washington, D.C., where I am, we've had snowy weather over the weekend, and a lot of flights were delayed or canceled. That's going to be a stressful time for any airport.

Does it become more of a concern when you have something like this shutdown stretching on for weeks, and people are already under stress before the bad weather arrives and everything gets upended?

CURTIS: The typical snowstorm or other weather activity that happens in the winter probably won't stress the system. What may be a real test of the system is if there's an extraordinary level of serious weather that shuts down numerous airports, that makes it difficult for the staffing levels that are now in place to actually get the job done.

One hopes that that stress test will not happen. But if it does, we'll probably see issues come to the surface quicker than we have in the past three weeks.

SHAPIRO: That's Todd Curtis, founder and CEO of the website airsafe.com. Thanks for joining us.

CURTIS: Well, thank you again for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.