US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chair Jennifer Homendy warned lawmakers that a government shutdown could stall investigations such as that into why an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 suffered a rapid in-flight decompression two weeks ago.

Homendy, writing to Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, on 17 January says “a lapse in funding would dramatically hinder our ability to begin, continue and complete accident and incident investigations and timely issue relevant safety recommendations”.

A government shutdown is possible in the coming days if lawmakers fail to reach a budget deal.

Door plug

Source: NTSB

A damaged Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 after a door plug blew in-flight, causing a rapid decompression of the aircraft on 5 January

“We currently have 1,254 open investigations,” Homendy says. “These include major investigations across each mode of transportation, including the Alaska Airlines flight 1282 in-flight separation of a door plug after take-off from Portland, Oregon, [and] multiple investigations into runway incursions, near misses and other incidents in aviation”.

The NTSB sent a team to Portland immediately after the Alaska Airlines accident, which occurred on 5 January. She says the safety investigatory bureau has completed initial onsite activities and that debris, including the blown-out door plug, is being examined in the NTSB’s Materials Laboratory.

“The FAA has grounded the Boeing 737-9 Max to provide for emergency inspections of the planes and to protect human life,” Homendy says. “The FAA has also initiated its own investigation with a view toward emergency actions necessary to return the planes to safe flight and [to] appropriately oversee inspection and manufacture of this series of Boeing aircraft.”

“NTSB staff have determined that, in the event of a lapse of appropriations, while the airplane remains grounded, there is no known imminent threat to the safety of human life or protection of property that would justify the continuation of ongoing work related to the NTSB’s AK 1282 investigation,” she says.

US lawmakers have until 19 January to agree on a deal that would keep the government in business, at least temporarily. Congress is gearing up to vote on a bipartisan continuing resolution, which would provide funding until early March.

But that resolution would require agencies like the NTSB to continue operating on last year’s $129.3 million budget. If that is the case, Homendy says, the NTSB would have to pause hiring and investment into infrastructure upgrades and cut discretionary spending on employee training. “If the agency was to experience higher than normal mission activity, normal operations could be impacted as well,” she adds.