As AVweb has been reporting, the partial government shutdown has impacted aviation at a number a levels, from aircraft registration to aircraft safety inspection. But the effect on the provision on airman FAA knowledge tests is more critical than many realize.
Along with the shutdown of the knowledge test process, the provision of FAA airman practical tests are additionally affected in some important ways. While FAA Designated Pilot Examiners (DPEs) havent been told to stop offering their services, the system they use to process applications for pilots seeking ratings or certificates is government run and if anything breaks, its possible that no one will be there to fix it.
Currently, it is currently up and running-for now. For authorized practical tests, should the system fail, examiners, instructors, and applicants could go back to paper applications, but these–along with those being submitted digitally–are going to pile up during any time the FAA staff is furloughed.
Its reasonable to think that even when FAA staff is able to return from furlough, which we hope is soon, the applications that have been submitted in the interim will be delayed in processing. The potential for expiration of temporary airman certificates issued (which only last 120 days) may lead to added workload for local FAA offices needing to re-issue temporary certificates that have expired. If an airman lets a certificate expire, he or she will no longer have a valid pilot certificate.
Any processing of practical tests that require FAA staff to be present will be halted during this shutdown. The most pronounced result of this is the initial flight instructor test. These tests are typically either administered directly by FAA staff or are deferred by FAA staff to appropriately qualified FAA DPEs if FAA staff arent available. Even when deferred, FAA staff must interact with the applicant to assign the test. If FAA staff arent in the office, this is not possible, effectively stopping the flow of any new CFI applicants.
Circling back to the knowledge test issue, in the short run, the effect will be limited for those that have already completed knowledge tests. In the longer term, if tests arent administered, this will stop all processing of pilot applicants for ratings or certificates. This will effectively stop any training providers, including local FBOs, colleges and universities, or even airlines from moving pilot candidates through ratings and certificates.
For pilot candidates in collegiate or university aviation programs, this may halt their progress through expensive academic programs. When these programs are unable to move pilots through the system, not only will government staff be out of work, but all of the civilian DPEs that provide these tests will have effectively been laid off and no longer able to work.
If the shutdown continues without relief, or the FAA staff that oversee these activities arent fully reinstated and allowed to return to work, it will stop pilot training in the U.S. eventually, even if this doesnt happen all at once. With concerns about pilot shortages growing more urgent each year, the shutdown is a significant worry for the industry, if it isnt ended soon. It has the potential to affect the transportation infrastructure’s ability to provide qualified pilots. And this wont necessarily take months to notice. Pilot training facilities are already hitting the roadblock of knowledge tests and this is likely to grow worse by the day.
Jason Blair is a designated pilot examiner and former director of the National Flight Instructors Association.