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Air travel may be less safe during the government shutdown, federal inspectors warn

MIAMI — Federal aviation safety inspectors haven’t been inspecting anything for the last two weeks because of the government shutdown. Deemed nonessential workers, the inspectors say they’re anything but.

Holding signs saying, “Was your airplane properly repaired and inspected today? The FAA does not know!” at Miami International Airport on Thursday, inspectors spoke with departing airline passengers about what they say is a heightened risk of aviation accidents because of their absence.

“My job is the safety of people,” said Charles Banks, 50, a veteran who has worked as an FAA safety inspector for 15 years. “I have family flying too and I can’t protect them from here on the curb.”

Contrary to their TSA counterparts, safety inspectors have little interaction with travelers. Instead, they work behind the scenes inspecting plane repairs, reviewing pilot work, helping flight attendants with unruly passengers and investigating accidents. About 80 inspectors work at MIA and Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport, Banks said, along with a larger administrative staff. Airline companies do their own inspections and reviews, but according to the furloughed inspectors, no one is currently overseeing those companies.

“We are another layer of safety,” said Troy Tomey, 52, who has been an inspector for four years. “We’re the last check of the box. Taking us out of it, mistakes can happen.”

An FAA press release from Dec. 22 — the first day of the government shutdown — said “there is no impact to safety or FAA oversight for travelers.” Furloughed inspectors disagree. On Dec. 21, the day before the shutdown, a Korean Air cargo plane’s wing collided on the ground with a Tab cargo plane’s tail at Miami International Airport, damaging both planes. Tomey said he and his team identified damage that one of the airlines didn’t originally report to the aircraft manufacturer, which was in charge of repairing the planes.

Normally, Tomey said he would review the manufacturer’s repair report to make sure everything was fixed. But since he’s been furloughed, that hasn’t happened.

“Both companies have emailed me what they’ve done and my job is to validate what they’ve done is right,” Tomey said. “I’m 99.9 percent sure they did, but we don’t know. Now they’re back in the air flying.”

In Michigan, sheriff’s deputies have been guarding the scene of a fatal plane crash last weekend, waiting for FAA investigators to arrive. The FAA said in a statement that it is limiting investigations to “major accidents involving significant casualties and certain other accidents when failure to proceed with the investigation creates a significant risk to transportation safety.”

In addition to public safety, the personal well-being of inspectors is top of mind for Robert Guevara, legislative chairman for Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union that represents safety inspectors.

“We have members who live paycheck to paycheck. We have mortgages to pay. We’re just like everybody else,” he said. “Our creditors demand their bills to be paid on time. We’re worried they’re going to take a hit on their credit reports.”

Still, furloughed inspectors said they’d prefer to be working without pay like their TSA colleagues. At least then, they’d know they were doing all they could do to keep passengers safe.

Airplane flying away to the blue sky