FAA inspectors and systems specialists are still hashing out where services may be fully scaled back as they prepare for rolling furloughs set to take effect April 21 under sequestration. But they do know that the cuts will be significant and have a ripple effect once in place.

Along with shuttering contract towers and furloughing controller staff, thousands of FAA inspectors and systems specialists who maintain the air traffic control system are facing shortened weeks of up to 11 days of furlough over the remaining five months of the fiscal year.

The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), which represents close to 9,000 inspectors and systems specials, has been negotiating new agreements with FAA to realign shifts and workloads.

PASS Vice President Rich Casey warned as sequestration began that it would cause “major operational changes, including facility closures, elimination of shifts, reduced maintenance and fewer aviation inspectors working in the field. This will lead to delays in the restoration of equipment.”

In outlining planned cuts, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta had noted reduced preventive maintenance and equipment provisions along with lengthy delays in safety approvals and certification.

FAA later confirmed that regular preventive maintenance would be disrupted at all but the 77 busiest airports.

The furloughs mean fewer people are available to keep up with the maintenance, says PASS President Mike Perrone. If equipment fails, it could take more time for specialists to fix it. Depending on the system or where it is, a failure could remain unrepaired for some time. The furloughs also mean that there may be some relocation of systems specialists, and some facilities that were formerly regularly attended to will not receive the same attention, he adds.

The systems’ upkeep becomes particularly important, industry leaders say, since the national airspace system will already be losing up to 149 contract air traffic control towers and the controller workload will be increasing as federal controllers pick up the slack while grappling with their own furloughs. The leaders also worry that some navigational aids require substantial preventive maintenance.

Perrone maintains that his workers plan to make sure that the system is the safest possible. But he worries, “How can we safely maintain the NAS if we’re limited to 32-hr. [work weeks].”

Beyond the basics of maintenance, FAA is also halting most training for systems specialists and new specialists – similar to controller training – cutting off an important pipeline of new workers, Perrone says.

Also impacting the agency are travel budgets, which directly hits the safety inspector staff, he adds. Not only will fewer inspectors be on hand to conduct basic duties, they will not be permitted to keep up their regular schedule of travel.

This means certification work for airplanes, airplane upgrades, alterations and new components may slow significantly. FAA is considerably slowing the number of new projects it will accept. It also means safety inspectors may not be available to immediately travel to an accident site, Perrone notes.