No end in sight for FAA stalemate

August 2, 2011 2:52:07 PM PDT
Congress could not agree on a deal to end the stalemate that has idled nearly 4,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees.

This dispute is much akin to the debt ceiling debate -- except there has been no resolution to funding the FAA. Members of Congress have left Washington for their summer recess. The FAA remains in partial shutdown mode, and may be stuck that way until after Labor Day.

Planes are still flying. Air traffic controllers are still working, but four-thousand of their colleagues at the FAA - who hold so-called non-essential jobs - remain on furlough. The partial shutdown of the FAA has meant that hundreds of airport construction projects across the country have been put on hold.

"We're seeing states bearing significant economic burden, critical airport construction projects across the county have been halted, and we've stopped over 200 projects around the country," Randy Babbitt, FAA administrator, said.

While work on much of the O'Hare Modernization Project continues, construction of a new additional radar tower meant to serve O'Hare has been halted. The same is true for a project that will add new runway status lights to help pilots with directions on the ground. What's in dispute here - on a national level - is how the FAA funded. The government pays subsidies to smaller, lesser used airports. Republicans and Democrats don't agree on what the amount should be, and they're also fighting over a provision that would make it more difficult for transportation workers to unionize. "This is the kind of smalltown bickering that is taking place in the way of government operating efficiently," said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley.

The stalemate does not continue without a cost: When travelers buy an airline ticket, a small portion of what they pay goes to the aviation trust fund. With the FAA's reauthorization bill stuck, that no one is collecting that tax. The airline ticket tax money funds the building and repair of runways and control towers and other capital improvements, even runway inspections. What's not being collected amounts to about $30 million a day, according to the transportation department. That's money lost.

Despite that, ticket prices largely have not dropped because some airlines have bumped up their fares slightly. What would have gone to the FAA then goes to the airlines.

"They are now turning big profits since they cut back service, and is it right to collect that money? Of course it's not right," Clay Mosberg, airline passenger, said.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday afternoon that the government is trying to determine if there are ways to recover the lost ticket tax revenue. That was tried unsuccessfully when a similar situation presented itself over a decade ago. LaHood insists that the aviation system - despite the partial FAA shutdown - is safe, and that nothing will be done to sacrifice safety.

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