Furloughed: ‘I don’t know when I’ll get back to work’

Posted Friday, Oct. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Ramon Encarnacion’s 11-year-old son doesn’t understand why his father, an aviation safety inspector, was able to greet him when he got home from school this week.

“When he came home and saw me here and not working, he said, ‘But you’re always at work,’” said Encarnacion, who lives in north Fort Worth.

Encarnacion, who worked for 25 years at American Airlines without ever being furloughed, never thought he would be out of work when he took a job at the Federal Aviation Administration as a safety inspector last year. But with the government shutdown, Encarnacion and hundreds of other Texas employees who work for the FAA are getting an unplanned and unpaid vacation.

Although air traffic controllers, air marshals and TSA agents are considered essential government employees, the FAA decided recently to reclassify the aviation safety inspectors as non-essential personnel. So when Congress did not pass a budget to fund the government earlier this week, about 3,000 inspectors were furloughed.

“We go out to airports every day, 24-7, and do random inspections on airplanes to ensure that they can fly safely from point A to point B,” said Encarnacion, who usually works out of the FAA’s field office near DFW Airport.

The FAA, which is planning to move into a new regional office near Alliance Airport in 2015, has about 1,600 workers in Fort Worth located at different offices. Many of those are non-essential employees who are currently on furlough.

With inspectors off the job, the FAA has a skeleton crew of 300 office managers nationwide who will respond to emergencies only, according to the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union.

FAA programs that certify new aircraft for commercial airlines and inspect overseas and third-party maintenance facilities have been temporarily suspended, the union said. For example, as American Airlines receives new Airbus aircraft to replace its aging MD-80 fleet, it needs the FAA to certify the plane before it can carry passengers. With no inspectors, the certifications are not being performed.

“The tasks that normally roll through the door aren’t getting done,” said Matt Wetzel, a union spokesman. “Houston is looking at missing their air show this month because the information came in late for those stunt shows.”

Wetzel said inspectors vet every act at the air show and look at the airworthiness of the aircraft. So if the government shutdown lasts several weeks, inspectors won’t be able to sign off on the show. The Wings Over Houston air show is scheduled for Oct. 26-27.

The Fort Worth Alliance Air Show, which is scheduled for Oct. 19-20, has already been approved by the FAA and is ready to go. But it did alter its schedule when the Blue Angels announced in the spring that they would not be flying this fall due to earlier federal budget cuts caused by the sequester, show officials said.

Billy Golema, an FAA inspector, said he is already talking to private companies about job openings in case the government shutdown goes from days to weeks. Although he has enough money to get by in the short-term, he doesn’t plan to wait for Congress to pass a budget.

“I don’t know much about politics; I’m an aircraft guy,” Golema said. “They call it furloughs, layoffs, but to me all it means is that I don’t know when I’ll get back to work.

“There is no way to plan for that.”

Andrea Ahles, 817-390-7631 Twitter: @Sky_Talk

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