A Flight-Safety Inspector Explains the Very Real Perils of the Shutdown

Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

A Fox News commentator recently downplayed the effects of the government shutdown — now officially the longest in U.S. history — suggesting that half the government’s agencies could be shut down for years before “the regular person, the normal, average working American,” noticed the effects. Aside from the oddness of suggesting government workers themselves aren’t normal Americans, the remark dismisses the vital work these agencies do. It’s true that a vast share of government jobs are invisible to most of the public, but often that’s only because they’re being done effectively. Like running water or electricity, no one thinks about these services until they’re cut off.

One prime example: air safety. This week, I spoke with Ben Struck, an aviation-safety inspector of six years who lives in Brooklyn, who has been furloughed since December 22. His team oversees small airlines, pilots, maintenance schools, and repair stations throughout Long Island and Westchester County, plus helicopters throughout New York City’s five boroughs. In the conversation below, he explains what’s being left undone in his absence, and reflects on the worst-case scenarios for an extended shutdown.

How do you do your inspections? Do you ride along with pilots or what?

Yeah, ride-alongs — or what we call cabinet-safety inspections — are one of the tools we have. But when pilots make airspace deviations, or level at the wrong altitude, those also get reported through air traffic control. We can investigate and get down to the root cause. We can have a conversation with the pilot. He might say, “Yeah, my autopilot got screwy, I wrote it up when I got back,” or he might say, “Eh, I never got trained on this autopilot, but I decided to fly the plane anyway.” That’s a different conversation to have. What kind of retraining can we require that pilot to do?

But airlines monitor this stuff too, right? They have their own vested interest in keeping everything safe.

Yes, the larger businesses do. Safety is a primary factor for them, but so is profit. The inspectors really don’t care about the airline’s bottom line. We’re prohibited from having investments in certain aviation companies. Our only job is safety.

Plus airlines sometimes overfly required inspections. Let’s say an inspection is required at every 100 hours of flight time, and they know nobody has come to look at their records in a while. “Eh, we’ll overfly it a little bit — five hours.” Or “Maybe we just won’t do that inspection at all for 50 hours.” We bring them into compliance.

The analogy that’s often used is, if you’re speeding down the highway, and you know a cop is behind the next tree, you may slow down a little bit. But if you haven’t gotten a ticket in a long time, or you don’t see that cop, you may creep up to 60 or 65 miles per hour. We call that a normalized deviation. You think, “You know what? I’m going to get away with that every time.” The longer we sit here at home, the more likely it is that those normalized deviations will occur. People might be more brazen and look to get away with things more often.

What’s the point in this shutdown when you would start feeling nervous about getting on a commercial flight?

It’s hard to quantify! I can only say that the longer we’re not out there doing our jobs, the more opportunity there is to introduce potential risk.

There’s a famous gentleman, James Reason, who created the “Swiss cheese model.” It’s fairly well known in the aviation world. There are all these holes in the cheese, and when all the holes line up and create a single pass-through point, there’s the potential for an accident. Normally, airlines and repair stations have controls in place to either close the holes or shift them around so they don’t line up anymore. We are an extra layer to make sure the holes don’t align.

Have any of your colleagues gone back to work?

They’ve started to bring some people back, but with really limited resources. We’re short-staffed as it is, and now they’re bringing back one or two people at a time in offices that ordinarily have 15 to 30 people. They don’t have the support staff they need.

Plus, I’d imagine that not getting paid could affect job performance.

It’s a distraction. It’s a stressor. It takes them away, even if only momentarily, from the primary mission of the job. They might be thinking, “I really don’t want to have that discussion with my mortgage company,” or “The credit company is calling because I’m late on my bill.” Then there’s the thought, “I’m here, but my colleague who usually sits next to me isn’t. What is that going to do to our relationship when everyone comes back?”

How is it affecting you on a personal level?

We got our pay stubs yesterday. Mine had $8.01. I’m not sure why. I’m grateful that it’s not zero — it’s something. It will buy a meal! But it adds a lot of stress to the family life. I’m the primary provider at this point. We rely on my income to make sure our bills and rent are paid, and groceries are in the fridge, and my two daughters are getting what they need. It’s not just being nourished, but we do other things to enrich them too: piano lessons, gymnastics classes. You start to worry: How long can we continue to afford our current lifestyle? It’s modest. As a federal employee, I don’t expect to make a lot of money, but I do expect to have a stable paycheck.

I’m seeking unemployment from New York State. I’ve also been seeking some freelance work, some consulting opportunities. But I can’t do anything aviation-related. The ethics standards say anything I do has to be outside of my current field of expertise and knowledge. So I have to ask, what am I able to do, legally, so I don’t get in trouble, in order to provide for my family?

My wife is a freelance musician, so her income is … varied. It’s not predictable. We’re having a frank conversation this weekend, when we can send the kids off somewhere for a couple hours and look at numbers. We are one of those paycheck-to-paycheck families. The goal is to not be at some point, but in a high-cost city, it’s difficult.

So are you following all the news alerts about Trump’s negotiations with the Democrats? Are you biting your nails?

During the last shutdown I was obsessed. It came very suddenly, and we were all eager to get back. This time, during the are we going to shut down? period, I was anxious and eager to get some news. But over the last few days I’ve found that it causes more anxiety to constantly pay attention to it. I’m focusing more on labor-organizing, trying to represent our union and our employees, trying to get the message out about what we do and why we’re essential to the aviation system.

We really are passionate about aviation safety. We take the job home with us. Maybe not physically, in terms of taking a computer or getting calls, but we think about it a lot. If, God forbid, there’s an operator out there we are involved with, who we’ve touched in some way, or if an airman we’ve interacted with has some sort of accident, we’ll obsess over what we could have done better and what we missed. It’s a good federal job, but the primary reason we do it is that we love aviation and we love trying to keep it as safe as possible.

A Flight Inspector Explains the Perils of the Shutdown