Another six weeks of partial-FAA shutdown

Wednesday - 8/3/2011, 8:38am EDT

By Jared Serbu
Reporter
Federal News Radio

A last-ditch effort to avert another six weeks of a partial shutdown for the Federal Aviation Administration fizzled out in the Senate Tuesday afternoon as lawmakers appeared all but certain to depart to their home districts for the August recess period without reaching a compromise.

The failure to enact an extension of the FAA authorization bill stretches the unpaid furlough of nearly 4,000 federal employees into September. The partial shutdown also involves stop-work orders to more than 200 FAA contractors and the loss of work for an estimated 24,000 private-sector employees. The halted work includes construction projects at airports across the country, as well as high-tech work such as the development of the FAA's NextGen air traffic control system.

"We've been told we can't get near our offices, we can't access the FAA computer system. We're just nobody right now," Curtis Howe, an FAA engineer in Renton, Wash. told Federal News Radio.

The shutdown also deprives the FAA of nearly $200 million in weekly revenue from taxes that are no longer being collected on airline tickets — a tab that is expected to reach $1.2 billion by the time Congress returns.

There had been glimmers of hope as late as Tuesday afternoon that the impasse, revolving around subsidies for expensive-to-serve rural airports would be overcome after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the Senate would be willing to sign off on the House-passed subsidy cuts, which Democrats had previously objected to.

The House language would strip FAA Essential Air Service funding from commercial airline destinations for which the government pays more than $1,000 per seat. There are three such airports in the U.S.: Alamogordo, N.M., Glendive, Mont., and Ely, Nev.

"It's a program I believe in, but I also believe that $3,500 per passenger is a little extreme," Reid said. "That's what [the federal subsidy to] Ely, Nevada is. I do my best to protect the state, but sometimes you have to be reasonable, and I think as we learned with this big [debt ceiling] deal we've just done, sometimes you have to step back and find out what's best for the country."

But fellow Democrats were unwilling to agree to the House language, demanding instead that the Senate pass a "clean" FAA extension bill and return it to the other chamber.

"We all know the House sent over not a clean extension, but an extension that cuts essential air service to some of our rural communities," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said on the floor Tuesday. "This needs to be worked on, not agreed to in a gotcha kind of situation."

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told Federal News Radio Tuesday morning that Congress simply hasn't done its job. "Unfortunately, many FAA employees aren't collecting pay and aren't allowed to work because somebody's stuck protecting their parochial interest," he said. "That's a dysfunctional Congress."

The shutdown is less than two weeks old, and already the government has lost more than $250 million in revenue because airlines' authority to collect ticket taxes has expired. The entire annual budget of the rural air services program is about $200 million.

"I'm a fiscal conservative," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), told the chamber Monday. "I'm trying to make the cuts that are necessary, trying to do the things that are right, but ...that just doesn't add up."

Furloughed FAA workers expressed frustration at Congress' failure to pass a bill. Howe said he felt he and other employees were being used as "pawns in an ideological mess."

"We're kind of being held hostage," Howe said. "We can't go look for work. We're being told we're in a standby federal status. You know what another employer is going to say? We might be off for six weeks or six months, and these are degreed professionals, engineers or architects. If they tell an employer they want to help out for six weeks or six months, an employer's not interested. We're being thrust into the unemployment insurance realm without a way to get out. Our people are kind of lost right now. This is a punch in the stomach."

Dan Stefko, a civil engineer for the FAA in Pittsburgh, said there was some frustration in the fact that because the air traffic control system and other emergency functions are exempt from the shutdown, the effects of the furlough are not immediately visible to the public.

"The system stays extremely safe," he said. "Our air traffic controllers are on the job right now, and we have the most dedicated professionals in the world. We do the behind the scenes work. The American flying public isn't going to see that day to day unless they just happen to be taxiing past idled construction equipment on a runway that's no longer being built. What will happen is that projects that are in the pipeline that we have to have done before bad weather hits just aren't going to get done. Instrument landing systems aren't going to be flight checked so they can be put into use. Runways aren't going to get to get built. It's going to have a ripple effect."