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Shutdown may delay NextGen aviation upgrade, warns union chief

[WASHINGTON] The 35-day partial government shutdown may have created enough chaos within government that it will postpone adoption of a critical satellite-based navigation system needed to modernise the air-traffic system, a union official warned.

Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a Washington speech on Tuesday that the shutdown halted work on a new computer system being installed at facilities around the country needed to monitor aircraft starting in 2020.

The computer upgrade is needed so controllers can track planes using so-called ADS-B instead of radar, and is an important foundation of the modernisation effort known as NextGen that's designed to make flight paths more efficient and safer. Airlines and other aircraft operators are spending billions of dollars to equip their planes with the satellite technology before the end of the year.

"This shutdown cut us deep," Mr Rinaldi said. "It cut government employees deep. It cut our aviation industry deep. We're just starting to stitch it back up. We're not even sure what the damage really is."

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The nation's controllers, who were forced to work without pay for 35 days during the partial government shutdown, seemed to be a critical catalyst to bringing it to an end on Friday. When six controllers out of 13 called in sick at a Virginia air-traffic facility, the agency couldn't handle the normal flight volume along the East Coast and began holding planes on the ground.

The flight delays that cascaded out to New York's LaGuardia Airport and others were never officially linked to the shutdown and, according to the union, overall controller absentee rates had been lower than average. But the slowed flights nevertheless became emblematic of the growing dysfunction in government and prompted widespread news coverage.

By Friday afternoon, a temporary impasse had been reached allowing lawmakers and President Donald Trump until Feb 15 to reach agreement on future government funding.

Starting Dec 22, funds had been halted for more than a dozen major agencies and departments in a dispute over US President Donald Trump's desire to spend billions of dollars building a wall at the Mexico border. Democratic lawmakers objected to the wall.

Mr Rinaldi said he had begun hearing reports of his members making errors during the shutdown as a result of the growing stress of working without pay. While the errors didn't directly jeopardise safety, it was a sign that things were getting worse.

As a result of the shutdown, the Federal Aviation Administration halted training for new controllers, postponed work on multiple new technology systems and stopped monitoring routine safety reports, Mr Rinaldi said.

One of the frustrating aspects of the shutdown is that the FAA's Airport & Airway Trust Fund, which is funded by taxes and fees mainly paid by aircraft flying in the air-traffic system, couldn't be used to pay for normal government operations, Mr Rinaldi said. It has a surplus of more than US$6 billion and should be used to ensure that future shutdowns don't hit the air-traffic system, he said.

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