Nearly 4,000 FAA employees were temporarily laid off last Friday when Congress failed to agree on an extension of the agency's operating authority. The partisan dispute over FAA stems from a Republican proposal to limit employee bargaining rights and eliminate $16.5 million in federal subsidies for rural airports. The federal government has long subsidized airline traffic to smaller airports in rural communities which have limited demand for commercial traffic.
Despite the shutdown, air traffic controllers remain on the job and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says air travel is safe. But amidst a tenuous economic climate, work on more than 150 airport construction projects nationwide has been halted leaving 70,000 construction workers idle.
Sec. Ray Lahood, Dept. of Transportation: “If some of you have been paying attention, you know that I’ve said we have the safest and the best aviation system in the world. This is not the way to run it, to have 4,000 of our people that run the system not at their desks, not doing their work, and to have these construction projects suspended. Transportation has always been bipartisan. I served on the House Transportation Committee for three terms. It was always bipartisan. It’s always been bipartisan. And I ask Congress in a bipartisan way to come back, pass a clean bill, finish the negotiations, and then get to a bigger FAA bill.”
The shutdown costs the federal government $200 million a week in airport ticket taxes. But consumers have yet to see a drop in prices as airlines have rolled the fees into their existing bottom line.
Republicans in Congress insist that any compromise must include union negotiating limits and the elimination of rural airport subsidies. But as debt negotiation talks swallow much of the oxygen in Washington, an FAA compromise remains “up in the air.”