Congress' failure idles thousands of FAA employees, dozens of projects
WASHINGTON (AP) - Dozens of airport construction projects across the country are on hold and thousands of federal employees are not working because Congress failed to pass legislation to keep the Federal Aviation Administration operating, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Monday.
The FAA's operating authority expired at midnight Friday. Dozens of stop-work orders were issued over the weekend for projects to build and modernize airport control towers, as well as other improvement projects, officials said. Many of the airport projects are designed to improve the efficiency of air travel and reduce congestion.
"Because Congress didn't do its work, FAA programs and thousands of public and private sector jobs are in jeopardy," LaHood told reporters in a conference call.
Air traffic controllers have remained on the job, as well as FAA employees who inspect the safety of planes and test pilots. But airlines' authority to collect federal ticket taxes has expired, costing FAA about $30 million a day in lost revenue, Babbitt said.
That money goes into an aviation trust fund. The fund "has a healthy balance now, but that would be depleted in fairly rapid order" without congressional action, he said.
Nearly 4,000 FAA employees in 35 states, and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, who are paid from the trust fund have been furloughed.
About $2.5 billion in federal airport construction grants cannot be processed because workers who handle those grants have been furloughed, officials said. That, in turn, has halted construction projects, putting hundreds of other people employed by those jobs out of work.
"This is simply going to slow down our ability to expand to keep up with growing traffic demands," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said.
For example, work was scheduled to begin Saturday on a $6 million project to demolish a control tower at New York's LaGuardia Airport. But 40 construction workers hired for the project were told to stay home, Babbitt said.
Work also has stopped for new control towers at airports in Las Vegas; Palm Springs, Calif.; Oakland, Calif.; Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; Kalamazoo, Mich., and Gulfport, Miss., among other projects, officials said.
Approval also is on hold for airports to receive a new generation of super large airliners, including permission for Boeing 747-800s to begin servicing San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Newark, N.J., and Huntsville, Ala., according to the FAA.
Long-term funding authority for the FAA expired in 2007. Unable to agree on new long-term funding legislation for the agency, Congress has kept the FAA operating through a series of 20 short-term extension bills.
The Senate passed a long-term bill in February and the House approved a different version in April. Lawmakers have resolved most of the differences between the bills, but no progress has been made on a half dozen other issues.
Among their key differences are air service subsidies for rural communities and a Republican proposal that would make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize.
Republicans say Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is insisting that a labor provision in the House bill sought by the airline industry be dropped before negotiations can continue.
The labor provision would overturn a National Mediation Board rule approved last year that allows airline and railroad employees to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn't vote were treated as "no" votes.
Republicans complain that the new rule reverses 75 years of precedent to favor labor unions. Democrats and union officials say the change puts airline and railroad elections under the same rules required for unionizing all other companies.
The White House warned in March that President Barack Obama might veto the bill if the GOP labor provision is retained.
Last week, the House passed what would be the 21st extension of FAA's operating authority. But this time Republicans included provisions in the bill that would eliminate $16.5 million in subsidies for air service to 10 small airports that are less than 90 miles from a hub airport and three other remote airports in Montana, Nevada and New Mexico where subsidies average more than $1,000 per passenger.
Senate Democrats say the House is trying to force them to accept policies that haven't been negotiated. They blocked passage of the House extension bill. Senate Republicans then blocked passage of a Democratic extension that doesn't include the air services subsidies provision.