FAA furloughs overshadowed by debt ceiling

Wednesday - 7/27/2011, 11:46am EDT

Your Turn with Mike Causey

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By Jory Heckman
Federal News Radio

Political grandstanding over the debt ceiling talks has marginalized mass furloughs in the Federal Aviation Administration for Congress and the public.

As of midnight Friday, more than 4,000 engineers, planners, administrators, and aviation technical systems specialists were temporarily unemployed as the result of Congress' failure to renew the FAA's operating authority.

"It's a very strange period in our history right now," said Mike MacDonald, regional vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, in an interview with Federal News Radio. "We all see ourselves as pawns in a game that's being played by people that just don't understand the impacts. It's a scary time. Everybody's scared. Through no fault of our own, we're sitting at home, trying to figure out what to do next."

MacDonald said the FAA furloughs have had a ripple effect in other industries, like construction.

"There are literally hundreds of projects that have been stopped, and the people that have been working those, those people are also being sent home. And that's going to be kind of a lagging effect - people aren't going to really notice that right away. They see the 4,000 FAA [employees] that are furloughed, but there is an effect that's in every community where projects have been stopped," he said. "I don't think that they've really quantified the number of people that have actually been sent home."

Adding to MacDonald's frustration is the fact that the furloughs and consequential shutdown of the FAA haven't affected public behavior.

"People are still going to the airport, they're getting on their airplanes, they're flying, and they don't notice that this is taking place in the background," he said. "There's no pain for the flying public, so to speak, which scares us even more because this could go on for who knows how long, as long as there's no hue and cry with the members of Congress."

As far as pay and benefits are concerned, MacDonald said the FAA has been mum on what employees can expect to receive when they return to work.

"My understanding is that our health benefits will continue to be paid," he said. "The agency will continue to make their contribution. They will also advance for the employees' share for up to a year."

MacDonald said the FAA has been regularly updating their website with notifications for the furloughed employees. "But otherwise, my members are telling me that the only information they're getting is the stuff I'm forwarding to them," he said. "There's not a whole lot of talk about this, because it's just overcome by the whole debt ceiling crisis."

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Jory Heckman is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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