Washington

As Year Two of sequestration in the U.S. gets underway and the dust settles following October's partial government shutdown, the writing on the wall is both clear and ominous: FAA's new normal is not working.

The shutdown—which cut FAA's Office of Aviation Safety staff to 300 from 7,000 overnight—triggered 1,000 stop-work orders, delayed deliveries of airliners that could not be registered, cost repair stations thousands of dollars in delayed approvals and forced a major reshuffling of one airline's long-established plan to introduce a new aircraft type. All of this was piled on top of sequestration-related resource challenges that has delayed projects ranging from airline expansion to routine air traffic system hardware maintenance.

“It's hard to push the 'pause' button on a complicated and wide-scale operational agency like the FAA,” agency Administrator Michael Huerta told an industry gathering in late October. “Suddenly speeding it up or slowing it down—either direction—is extraordinarily disruptive. We operate most efficiently and effectively under conditions of certainty.”

The same can be said of industry operators. However, when it comes to regulatory support for all but the most critical jobs that FAA handles, uncertainty is about the only certainty that industry can count on.

This situation is “incredibly frustrating for us,” says Mark Dunkerley, CEO of Hawaiian Airlines, which has seen its planned start of turboprop operations delayed for months because FAA does not have the manpower to certify the new operation. “The strategic development of our business is being held hostage to the budget battles that are taking place.”

Allegiant thought it had a well-crafted plan to introduce seven Airbus A320s into its fleet starting in November. Plans to acquire the planes were revealed in December 2012, and the airline took possession of them in 2013. Crews were training in preparation for the start of operations from two Florida bases.

Then the shutdown came, and FAA furloughed inspectors needed to sign off on routine final details, like flight manuals and minimum equipment lists. Halfway through the 16-day shutdown, Allegiant went to Plan B, pushing back the A320 operational start dates until late 2013 or early 2014. The cost of flying older, smaller aircraft and rejiggering its crew placements could cost the airline $2 million, its executives estimate.

“The [FAA] shutdown couldn't have come at a worse time, in a sense,” says CEO Maurice Gallagher. “We were all prepped, ready to just start working with them, and they stopped.”

A survey of 30 repair stations by their primary trade group, the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), found that 61% experienced delays during the shutdown. Some of the holdups included approvals that repair stations needed to win to start work. Losses in dollar figures were hard to obtain, but ARSA cites one repair station's estimate that it lost $2,000 each day the FAA was hampered by furloughs, while another facility projected a total loss of $100 million during the shutdown.

FAA got a bit of a boost in the continuing resolution budget deal that ended the partial shutdown, seeing $100 million added to its coffers for fiscal 2014. “It's an acknowledgement that the cuts we are facing have serious consequences on both the FAA workforce and the sustainability of the system,” Huerta says of the funding increase. Still, he notes, FAA must cut hundreds of millions of 2014 dollars as part of sequestration. “We are operating at historically low levels of funding and the continuing resolution just keeps us at these reduced levels.”

Huerta says the agency will continue to “prioritize,” choosing which projects to tackle, and which to table.

If less-is-more is the new normal, he adds, then aviation needs a new approach to help FAA keep up with what it needs to do, and what industry wants it to do.

“I think we need to ask ourselves—and ask you, our stakeholders—whether we really want to, and need to, do everything the way we've always done it,” Huerta suggests, encouraging stakeholders to start “serious conversations about the structure of our aviation system, as well as the way to fund it.”

Acceptable alternatives to the current funding process will be tough to come by, as any changes will hit some industry segments more than others. But a year into a big helping of sequestration served with a side of shutdown, alternatives may seem more appetizing than the new status quo.

—Sean Broderick