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Update: What’s Happening with the FAA?


A plane on the tarmac at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Construction on a tower at the airport has been halted as a result of the FAA shutdown.

CREDIT: flickr / Mel1st

Update: As this post was being put live, Senator Reid announced that a bipartisan deal has been reached to end the FAA shutdown. We will update the situation as more details are released.

Earlier this week, presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressed his disapproval over the drawn-out nature of the debt ceiling negotiations, which ultimately passed at what Romney described as “the eleventh hour and 59thminute.” But while the debt ceiling debacle did drag on for far too long, it has overshadowed another issue that is now nearly two weeks past its 12thhour: Congressional authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Authorization for the FAA, which oversees civil air traffic in the United States, ended on July 22, putting about 70,000 construction workers out of jobs and placing 4,000 FAA employees on furlough. And with both houses of Congress now on recess, it appears that the issue won’t be resolved until at least September. “I've been around this business a long time, [and] I've never seen anything like this,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told CNN, adding that he “find[s] it appalling.”

Three sticking points kept Congress from passing a reauthorization bill before leaving for its August recess: the Essential Air Service (EAS) subsidy to rural airports, airline unionizing rules, and the number of planes that can fly into and out of Reagan National Airport. While many in the media have portrayed the airport subsidies as the key sticking point, it’s the labor dispute that has infuriated both sides of the aisle and seemingly caused the deadlock.

Two years ago, the National Mediation Board reversed a long-standing rule that requires an airline union to win a majority vote of all employees, not just those who are voting, in order to become certified. The ruling put airline unionization laws on par with nearly every other labor agency in the U.S., but it has since sparked a wave of Republican backlash. Earlier this week before taking recess, the GOP-controlled House passed a reauthorization bill that overturned the ruling, but the Democrat-controlled Senate rejected the measure and broke for recess before the issue was resolved.

While air traffic controllers are still working (Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that “safety is not compromised” and “never will be compromised,”) airport improvement projects, research and development, and administrative work have all grinded to a halt. The FAA needs authorization in order to collect taxes on airplane tickets, fuel, and other charges, and that money is what typically pays the 4,000 now-furloughed workers and funds numerous construction jobs. Additionally, the airlines’ inability to collect taxes is costing the federal government about $30 million per day in lost revenue. In fact, the lost revenue from the first week of the FAA shutdown was greater than the yearly budget of the entire EAS program.

Nearly all airlines raised ticket prices when the tax expired, so consumers likely won’t see a penny from the tax break, but the potential long term effects of the stoppage on the FAA are devastating. At many airports, construction is only possible during the summer, and many planned improvements—including safety projects like runway lighting and radar to prevent accidents—may be cancelled, or worse, left in a half-completed state. Many of the construction workers who were employed are likely looking for new work now, and the FAA may have a difficult time bringing them back. In his interview with CNN, Babbitt said even some FAA administrators may look for new employment.

While Congress’ decision to head into August recess without resolving the issue means that it is likely the FAA won’t be reauthorized until at least September, the two houses’ decision to stay in a “pro-forma” session means that it is technically possible for an agreement to be reached before then. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) called for a stop to the “non-sense” on Tuesday, and President Obama said he hopes a deal can be struck this week. For the sake of thousands of jobs and more than $1 billion in government revenue, we hope he’s right.

Jeffrey Boxer is an intern with Campus Progress.

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