Leaving on a Jet Plane: The Plight of FAA


In the rush of the debt ceiling debate over the last few weeks, Congress failed to address a Federal Administration (FAA) program which has left thousands of FAA workers out of work. Members of Congress (ironically) left on flights out of Washington, DC for the August recess while FAA remained partially shut down due to lack of progress on the bill’s 21st extension.  The Airport and Airway Extension Act originally expired in September of 2007 and has been running off short term extensions ever since, the most recent of which, expired on July 22nd. The extension has been held up due to language in the House passed extension (HR 2553) that would stop subsidies to small airports. The Senate wants a clean extension, but has been unable to move forward. With the two sides unable to agree on a resolution we have been left with a partial FAA shutdown.

Since this bill was not extended, 4,000 FAA employees have been furloughed for over a week and dozens of FAA inspectors, imperative to public safety, are being forced into paying to work. These workers are deeply frustrated by the situation Congress has left them in. FAA Administrator has said, “It’s incredibly unfair” and “I’ve been around this business a long time. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Babbitt continued, “And I find it appalling, candidly.” FAA workers are worried that they will not see a paycheck until Congress returns in the beginning of September, which is cause for concern when it is easy for mortgage payments, credit card bills and other loans to add up quickly. Many of these furloughed workers have begun to file for unemployment.  

This shutdown effects more than FAA employees, the FAA had to halt hundreds of airport construction projects across the nation, which means approximately 70,000construction workers are also out of work. Steve Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, pointed out that 35,000 support workers will also feel the impact of this shutdown.  Factoring in all these additional impacts, Congress has certainly left the economy grounded. Failure to move forward on this bill before the summer recess has put approximately 109,000 employees out of work, which means these workers will have less money to spend in the economy and many of these workers will file for unemployment claims, which will most certainly hurt the nation’s economy during our delicate recovery phase.

The hold up of this extension has also created an unintentional tax holiday for airlines which translates to a daily loss of between $25 and $30 million in excise taxes that cannot be collected for the Airport and Airways Trust fund. So far, the government has lost about $360 million. US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said on his blog, “after nearly 35 years as a staffer in Congress, a House member, and now as Secretary of Transportation, I am dismayed by the persistent acrimony plaguing this simple extension.” In a recent press briefing at the White House, LaHood moved beyond polite politics and said, “End your vacation for a couple days, get off the beach, get out of your mobile homes or whatever you are traveling in, get back to Washington,” and “Come back and pass a bill.”

President Obama called on Congress this week to take immediate action in pro forma Congressional sessions and called the situation “a self-inflicted wound that is unnecessary”. However, even with the President calling Congressional leaders in the House and Senate and demanding that the FAA be reopened; neither side has budged, instead each has dug their heels in deeper. As of today, there have been rumblings of a possible deal in Congress to address the FAA standoff, but no details have been released as of yet.

ASCE urges Congress to pass a clean a new extension by unanimous consent in a pro forma Congress, so that critical airport infrastructure improvements can move forward and so FAA employees can go back to work. Partisan posturing is negatively affecting the Airport and Airways Trust Fund and putting the nation’s aviation system even further behind. Furthermore, the nation needs a multi-year aviation reauthorization bill as soon as possible, especially since the nation’s aviation grade is a “D” in the 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

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