The 'Swiss cheese model' explains how the US government shutdown is making air travel more dangerous by the day

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  • The government shutdown has sidelined flight-safety inspectors with the Federal Aviation Administration.
  • One of those inspectors told New York magazine that the longer the shutdown goes on, "the more opportunity there is to introduce potential risk."
  • He invoked the "Swiss cheese model" to explain how removing one of the layers of flight safety could make air travel more dangerous.

An unintended consequence of the US government shutdown is that it could make air travel much more dangerous.

Already, the shutdown has sidelined, or forced to work without pay, thousands of airport security screeners with the Transportation Security Administration.

But an interview in New York magazine with a flight-safety inspector revealed just how much worse the situation could get.

Ben Struck, a flight-safety inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration from New York City, has been furloughed since the shutdown began on December 22. He told New York's Nick Tabor that many of the agency's offices nationwide are short-staffed, with only one or two workers out of 15 or 30 granted permission to work.

Read more: Canadian air traffic controllers are buying hundreds of pizzas for US colleagues who aren't getting paid in the government shutdown

Struck said that airline passengers said the shutdown could put airline passengers at risk.

"I can only say that the longer we're not out there doing our jobs, the more opportunity there is to introduce potential risk," he told Tabor.

Struck referenced the "Swiss cheese model" to explain how the lack of safety inspectors could compromise the system. Devised by James Reason, an expert in error management at the University of Manchester, the model compares an organization's defenses against failure as slices of Swiss cheese.

Flight-safety inspectors are one of those slices of cheese.

"There are all these holes in the cheese, and when all the holes line up and create a single pass-through point, there's the potential for an accident," Struck said.

"Normally, airlines and repair stations have controls in place to either close the holes or shift them around so they don't line up anymore. We are an extra layer to make sure the holes don't align."

Struck isn't the only person in the industry worried how the shutdown will affect air safety. Flight-safety union leaders have pointed to safety risks as a reason the shutdown should end immediately.

"Without a fully functioning FAA, a layer of safety is missing," Mike Perrone, the national president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists group, told The New York Times last week.

"Every day that goes by that the government is shut down, safety is going to be compromised. Every day that goes by, something could occur that causes a crack in the system."

Read the full interview at New York magazine »

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