Babbitt on FAA furloughs: 'Let's hope ... they never try this again'

Friday - 8/5/2011, 10:26am EDT

Randy Babbitt, administrator, FAA

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By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

The administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Randy Babbitt, said the FAA's "rough couple of weeks" appear to be at an end.

President Obama signed a funding bill Friday that ended a partial shutdown that furloughed 4,000 FAA employees.

"If this passes, it's our hope that we could have everyone of our employees be able to report to work on Monday ... That would be great for them and a great relief to their families and their co-workers," Babbitt said early Friday before the president signed the bill, in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio.

"There'll be some fits and starts to get back underway but we're very optimistic that (the bill) will pass and our employees and get back to work," Babbitt added.

Since Congress initially failed to act on the agency's short-term spending authorization, the FAA was forced to issue some 250 stop-work orders on about $5 billion worth of projects, he said. In addition to the furloughed FAA employees, about 70,000 private-sector contractors and construction workers were also affected.

Sorting out how — even if — furloughed workers will be compensated remains "a little murky," the administrator said, although he cited some Congressional efforts that would provide backpay. "That's not in-hand yet," he said.

Babbit also confirmed that some 150 airport safety inspectors had been exempted from the furlough but working on their own dime because the agency could not afford to pay them. The inspectors also incurred travel and lodging expenses the agency was unable to reimburse.

"All of that was being borne by them personally, which is incredible," he said. "It speaks volumes to their professionalism and their dedication to their jobs, and I'm very proud of those people."

Babbitt thanked the president, who, he said "personally got involved to bring this to closure," along with Reid and Transportation Department Secretary Ray Lahood, "who never wavered," he added.

"If I did one press conference," Babbitt said, "he did five."

However, clouds remain on the agency's horizon because the extension Congress votes on today only authorizes spending through the middle of next month.

"Let's hope — that when they see and realize the carnage that was done by this little political brinksmanship — that no one will try this again," Babbitt said.

The FAA has long operated under short-term extensions. The last full authorization expired in 2007 and FAA has relied on 20 previous short-term funding extensions, passed by Congress without incident, since then.

The latest short-term authorization passed by the House had "political ornaments hanging on it," Babbitt said, "and it made it very difficult to pass. That has not been the practice of the past, it was unprecedented and I hope that they wouldn't repeat it."

As for lessons learned, or wisdom gained, Babbitt said the episode has brought him a newfound understanding of Americans' deep frustration with Congress.

The partisan gridlock that sunk the initial short-term bill two weeks ago "is not any way to run the world's greatest and safest aviation system," he said. "We didn't get this way because people used it as a political lever in the past, and I hope that they would never try it again."

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