Shutdown May Keep Drones 'Grounded When We Need Them Most,' Warns Lobby

Air traffic and pilot unions members protest the government shutdown on Capitol Hill on Jan. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — Aviation groups including drone lobbyists and air-traffic controllers rallied on Capitol Hill today for an end to the 19-day government shutdown, stressing that the safety of the skies is under threat without funding for aviation operations.

The rally was organized by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a union representing nearly 20,000 air-traffic controllers, engineers, and other aviation safety-related professionals, and included Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.).

Other participants included Airlines for America (A4A), the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International noted that the shutdown has closed the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, jeopardizing the ability of drone pilots to legally operate.

“If the shutdown continues and operators see their certification expire, they may lose their insurance as certification is a requirement,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of AUVSI. “They will have to halt their operations – jeopardizing their sources of income and damage to their nascent business –– until the shutdown ends.”

Wynne said that under the partial government shutdown drone airspace “safety and security is jeopardized.”

“Public safety agencies across the country increasingly use UAS to gain situational awareness during natural disasters, to find missing persons, and to save time and money on routine tasks like car accident investigations,” he said. “The shutdown may keep them grounded when we need them most.”

The NATCA wrote to congressional leaders last week, warning that “no one should be under the illusion that it’s business as usual for aviation safety during a shutdown” as “every day the shutdown continues, the negative consequences to the National Airspace System (NAS) and its employees are compounding.”

“Even though air traffic controllers and traffic management coordinators remain on the job, dedicated to the safety of every flight, they don’t know when they’ll receive their next paycheck and that adds more stress to an already stressful profession. Additionally, over 3,000 NATCA-represented aviation safety professionals have been furloughed and sent home as a result of the shutdown. This shutdown and the resulting furloughs are rapidly eliminating the layers of redundancy and safety on which the NAS is built,” the union wrote. “…We wouldn’t ask a surgeon to perform an operation without the assistance of a support team, and we shouldn’t be asking air traffic controllers to continue working without support staff.”

Training programs for air-traffic controllers have also been frozen as “the number of fully certified controllers is now at a 30-year low — if the staffing shortage gets worse, we will see reduced capacity in the NAS, meaning more flight delays.”