FAA Shutdown Portends Protracted Fight in Congress

Tuesday, 26 Jul 2011 08:12 PM

 

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers dug in Tuesday for what is shaping up to be a protracted fight over legislation necessary to end a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration even as the economic and social consequences of the shutdown widened.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he was unaware of any negotiations to end the legislative stalemate between the House and Senate that permitted the FAA's operating authority to expire at midnight on Friday.

The administration hopes to persuade House Republicans to reach a compromise by publicizing the airport projects that have been halted and workers that have been laid off in their districts due to the shutdown, he told The Association Press in an interview.

Thus far, there's been no movement, but he remains hopeful, LaHood said.

The FAA has furloughed nearly 4,000 workers, stopped the processing of about $2.5 billion in airport construction grants, and issued stop work orders to construction and other contractors on more than 150 projects, from airport towers to runway safety lights.

The agency issued dozens more stop work orders on Tuesday. At least hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of private sector workers have been affected.

"It's frustrating," said Mike MacDonald, regional vice president of an FAA union representing nearly 1,200 engineers, architects, technicians and other workers who have been furloughed. "Why are we being used as pawns in this political game that has nothing to do with us?"

Most of his union's members "are like me — middle-aged with mortgages, kids in college and car loans," said MacDonald, 54, who has also been laid off. "It's scary."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he's concerned that Washington officials and the public have been so focused on the national debt crisis, that the FAA shutdown — which is unrelated — isn't receiving the attention it deserves.

"This is a very serious problem, but it is hard to rise above the din," he told reporters. More than 600 furloughed FAA employees worked at the agency's research and technical center in Egg Harbor, N.J.

GOP senators confirmed their intention to continue to block legislation to restore FAA's operating authority unless Democrats give ground on Republican proposals to cut air service subsidies to rural communities and to make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he will use Senate procedures to hold up the legislation unless it also includes cuts to the Essential Air Service program, which was set up more than three decades ago to ensure airline service on less profitable routes to remote communities. Critics complain that in some cases the subsidies are too high — more than $1,000 per person — or that some the communities are now within 90 miles of a hub airport, reducing their need for subsidies.

A Republican-sponsored bill passed by the House last week to extend FAA authority through Sept. 16 included a provision to cut $16.5 million in air service subsidies. FAA has a $16 billion budget this year.

Senate Democrats objected, saying Republicans were trying to use the subsidies provision to enact policy changes that haven't been agreed to by negotiators and to prod Democrats to compromise on the labor provision.

The labor provision is contained in a long-term funding plan for the FAA passed by the House in April. The Senate passed a similar bill in February without the provision. Democrats have insisted Republicans drop the labor provision before they will negotiate on a handful of other contentious issues in the long-term funding plan, including the air service subsidies.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who blocked a Democratic effort Friday to extend FAA's operating authority without cutting subsidies, told reporters he doesn't expect to change his position "until they quit playing around with labor law."

Also Tuesday, Democratic Sens. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate committee that oversees FAA's budget, and Maria Cantwell of Washington, who chairs the aviation subcommittee, sent a letter to airline industry officials complaining that airlines have raised fares during the tax holiday created by the FAA shutdown.

Airlines' authority to collect ticket taxes expired at midnight Friday along with FAA's operating authority. By Saturday night, nearly all the major U.S. airlines had raised fares to offset taxes that expired the night before, including American, United, Continental, Delta, US Airways, Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue.

Among the few airlines that didn't raise fares were Virgin America, Frontier and Alaska. The expiring taxes can total $25 or more on a typical $300 round-trip ticket.

"Consumers pay these taxes and fees to support the aviation system and it is patently unfair for the industry to charge them to travelers and not have them see any benefit," the senators wrote.

They urged airlines to either put their profits into an account to be used to support federal aviation programs or roll back the fare increases.

Industry officials were unrepentant.

"Customers are not impacted and are paying the same ticket prices they were last week," Air Transport Association spokeswoman Jean Medina said.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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