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U.S. aviation still stymied despite recall of FAA staff

By Alwyn Scott

(Reuters) - The U.S. government shutdown is blocking Boeing Co and Airbus from delivering aircraft to U.S. airlines and raising safety concerns, even though hundreds of furloughed workers are being recalled this week.

The problems faced by airlines and aerospace companies show the far-reaching impact of the shutdown, now in its eighth day.

With nearly one-third of the Federal Aviation Administration's 46,000 employees on furlough, airlines, aircraft makers and suppliers can't get parts and systems certified for use in planes, can't deliver new jets to customers, can't perform drug and alcohol tests, and can't carry out safety inspections and oversight of airlines.

Some observers say this poses a growing risk to travelers by increasing the odds of a plane crash.

"We're not going to drop one out of the sky tonight," said John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates air accidents.

"But over time the safety system is deteriorating."

REGISTRY CLOSED

While recalls this week by the FAA will allow aircraft made by Boeing to be certified, they will not enable jet buyers to perform a final step: registration.

The FAA registry in Oklahoma City remains closed, the agency said on Tuesday. The office issues registration numbers for planes and pilots, much like registration for automobiles and drivers, the agency said.

The office registers about 10,000 aircraft a month, according to the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), a trade group that said the closure also was affecting the sales of private aircraft.

So far, the office closure has halted $1.38 billion in private plane deliveries, NBAA President Ed Bolen wrote in an open letter to President Barack Obama. He said about a third of annual deliveries occur in the final three months of the year.

"If this backlog lasts more than a few days, it could potentially devastate the industry's fourth-quarter deliveries," he wrote.

Meanwhile, inspectors who check that airlines and pilots are still largely furloughed, even though some have been called back to work. The FAA is calling back 800 workers this week, but another 1,690, or two-thirds of the Office of Aviation Safety, remain on furlough, according to FAA records.

The recalls are "good news for the industry," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. "Both for safety and for the economy, a lot of these folks should be classed as essential."

But former NTSB official Goglia said that even with the recalled workers, airline inspectors are scarce and that may prompt carriers to overlook maintenance or pilot issues that would normally delay a flight.

Without a "cop on the beat," he said, "people are going to make bad decisions."

Trade group Airlines for America, which represents U.S. carriers, said it is confident that the FAA furloughs won't compromise the world's safest air travel system, though it said some "non-critical inspections, registrations and certifications will take longer."

The FAA said it is "constantly evaluating risk in the system" and may recall more employees if warranted.

JETLINER DELIVERIES AFFECTED

Airbus said on Tuesday that the FAA registry office closure prevented it from delivering jets to JetBlue Airways Corp and US Airways Group Inc.

"The airlines have been unable to get U.S. registrations for those aircraft, so unfortunately, the aircraft they need for operations remain outside of the U.S.," an Airbus spokeswoman said.

JetBlue said it was due to receive its first Airbus A321 jet last week, but the plane is still in Hamburg, Germany, because of the registration problem. The plane was not scheduled to carry paying passengers until December 19, because it needs to go through FAA certification for entertainment and WiFi systems.

"As the days go by, there's fewer days to get that work done," a JetBlue spokeswoman said.

Boeing declined to discuss specific deliveries affected but said an FAA mail-in process would provide it with "temporary registrations" for U.S. customers. Foreign airlines generally do not need FAA registrations.

American Airlines said it will be unable to take delivery of an Airbus A319 set for Wednesday because the FAA registry is closed. The plane is one of three Airbus jets due for delivery this month.

DREAMLINER THREAT AVERTED

However, Boeing and U.S. airlines were expected to get some benefit from the recall this week of FAA safety personnel.

Furloughs had threatened to halt certification of 787 Dreamliners made at the Boeing's South Carolina factory, Boeing and the FAA said.

On Tuesday, Boeing said FAA workers needed for certification of 787s from South Carolina or planes with new configurations were coming back on the job "to support pending deliveries."

Among the 800 returning workers, 200 are engineers, inspectors and safety staff involved in certifying planes and parts as airworthy, the FAA said.

The FAA said it is also recalling another 600 safety staff and inspectors who oversee airline operations and 25 doctors who oversee drug and alcohol testing.

Overall, 15,500 FAA workers were furloughed on October 1.

The FAA said it had no information on when the registry might reopen. It said general aviation accidents would be investigated by local law enforcement officials, rather than FAA staff, though the agency would recall staff to deal with emergencies.

(Reporting by Alwyn Scott. Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs.; Editing by Andrew Hay, Andre Grenon and Steve Orlofsky)

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