FAA funding debate may not fly with public
People over 30 remember that the ABC late night news show Nightline started under a different title — America Held Hostage — before morphing into its current incarnation. Each night during the Iran hostage crisis, which stretched from November 1979 to January 1981, the opening of the show with ominous trumpet blaring would give the number of days Americans had been held in Tehran before Ted Koppel gave a sober 15-minute update of the day’s news regarding the situation.
It’s a good bet many of us had that intro playing in our heads during the recent debt ceiling debate in Washington, and it now continues with the Federal Aviation Administration and its workers becoming the latest casualty in a political battle of wills while Congress has recessed for a month-long vacation, which not everyone agrees is well-deserved.
The FAA had to furlough 4,000 workers, and another estimated 50,000 to 70,000 airport service employees and construction workers have been idled as Congress did not fund the agency after granting pro forma temporary budgets 20 times previously over the past four years. That is where the agreement of what’s happening ends.
Republicans maintained their slashing mantra, saying they passed a bill in the House that cut unneeded and costly services to rural regional airports but the Senate refused to pass it. But Democrats charge the bill is nothing more than political payback for the FAA’s rule change last year that made it easier for airline workers to unionize. Democratic leaders claim the 16 airports targeted for reductions are in the districts of many prominent party leaders, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The inaction also means the halt to a number of security and airport improvement projects during the busiest construction time of the year, an estimated $11 billion around the country. In Massachusetts, 50 FAA workers have been furloughed and some $17 million in projects put on hold.
“Everybody is completed frustrated,” David Dineen, executive director of the 175-member Massachusetts Airport Managers Association, told the State House News Service.
Air traffic controllers are not among those out of work because they are paid through a separate fund but airport inspectors are being asked to work for free and use their personal credit cards to pay for their flying expenses. But there is no guarantee that when Congress returns, they’ll approve back pay or reimbursement.
“The reason they are out on the job is because of the risk to operational safety or life and property,” Randy Babbitt, the FAA administrator, said. “We are depending and living on their professionalism at this point.”
Administration officials say Congress does not have to return to formal session; it simply has to vote the bills through by unanimous consent during one of the times it procedurally reconvenes during the recess. And they put the pressure on lawmakers through a populist message urging member of Congress to forgo their usual travel plans.
“Members of Congress should not get on a plane to fly home for vacation without passing an FAA bill and putting thousands of people back to work,” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman, said in a statement. “Congress needs to do its job for the good of these workers, for the good of our economy and for the good of America’s aviation system.”
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