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Homepage / GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS

Causes and Effects of the FAA Shutdown

photo of Lara Seligman
August 4, 2011

In addition to leaving 4,000 workers furloughed, the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration has also halted more than 250 regional aviation development projects and caused thousands of constructions workers to lose their jobs.

The projects, which were valued at $10.5 billion when they began, include the installation of runway safety lights, the construction of air-traffic control towers and facilities, and the installation of radar systems to prevent runway and taxiway collisions. About 24,000 construction workers have lost work due to project suspensions, according to Associated General Contractors of America spokesman Brian Turmail. The halt of aviation development projects may also jeopardize 46,000 other jobs in construction-related businesses.

The partial shutdown is the result of a standoff between the House and Senate surrounding FAA funding. The debate hangs on several key issues:

 

Anti-union provision

House Republicans have refused to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration without including a provision that would make it harder for workers at airlines and railways to organize. This anti-union provision has been sought by big airlines, including Delta, which is resisting new rules by the National Mediation Board governing how labor unions at the nation's airlines are voted in. Under former NMB rules, employees who did not vote in a union election were counted as votes against forming a union, which created a hurdle for union organization. However, new rules would allow only votes in favor of or against forming a union count in an election.

Essential Air Service program cuts

Several weeks ago, the House passed the stopgap FAA measure over the objections of Democrats who wanted to exclude cuts to the Essential Air Service program from the bill. These cuts would affect rural airports in a few states including Nevada and West Virginia in particular. Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., blamed Republicans for refusing to accept this "clean" stopgap funding bill for the FAA - which means no permanent changes would be made to the policy.

Democrats say that the language House Transportation Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., added in the House-passed short term extension made it clear that the provision is aimed at forcing Senate Democrats whose states are particularly affected to yield in discussions on a long term bill.

Additional slots at Reagan Airport

A months-long debate over adding more long-distance flights to and from Reagan Washington National Airport is also to blame for holding up the FAA authorization bill. Federal law allows only 12 long-distance (non-stop over 1,250 miles) flights to and from Reagan Airport each day. The remaining long-distance flights are diverted to Dullus and Baltimore-Washington Airport, which are both about 30 miles from D.C. Several West Coast senators want to increase the number of long-distance flights allowed to and from the airport to stimulate travel from their states, but members of Congress who represent districts around BWI and Dullus airports oppose any such legislation, fearing that their districts could suffer from decreased air traffic.

Overall funding

The bill approved by the House, at $59.7 billion over four years, would cut $4 billion from FAA programs and facilities, and return FAA to 2008 spending levels. Some specific cuts include phasing out EAS in three years, consolidating old or obsolete FAA facilities to save on maintenance costs, and cutting F&E account funding to $2.6 billion.

However, Democrats believe that returning FAA to these spending levels could potentially harm passenger safety, particularly because the proposed cuts include funding for runways and taxiways.

The Senate's measure would provide $34.5 billion over two years in order to reduce costs without as many immediate cuts.

Projects Impacted

The FAA furloughs and stop-work orders may not be affecting commercial air travel yet, but the impact is real in a number of key areas:

FAA Operations: At the William J. Hughes Technical Center outside Atlantic City, N.J., the largest aviation-research facility in the world, 640 workers were furloughed, severely affecting the work of more than 1,000 other federal employees and 1,300 contract workers still on the job. “Much of the work of those exempt from the furlough will languish since our coworkers are forced to remain home,” said Robert Challender, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents some of the workers at the center.

A similar situation exists at the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City, where 165 employees have been furloughed while hundreds of others continue to work. “It doesn’t matter if we had just one member affected. It’s a member affected by poor policy,” said Greg Brooks, president of the AFGE local there. “One person can make a difference in people’s lives doing this kind of work.”

Airport operations around the nation are in a strange state without the usual FAA oversight. “The shutdown affected all airport divisions,” Rich Nuttall, manager of the Telluride, Colo., Regional Airport, told the Telluride Daily Planet. “The folks I normally deal with have been furloughed. Any questions or things we have to do are on hold until this is resolved.”

Runway Improvements: A $19 million runway rehabilitation project at the Denver International Airport and a $6 million taxiway project at the Glacier International Airport in Montana have been put on hold, and officials fear a continued delay will push the work into next year because snow season is not that far off in the Rocky Mountain region.

Even smaller airports for general aviation have been affected. At the John Tune Airport in Nashville, Tenn., where a small plane overshot the runway this summer, a $9 million runway extension has been delayed.

Control Towers: A new $14.4 million tower at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport in Michigan is on hold, leaving the airport operations in a 1950s-era tower that has an obstructed view. “We’re in a wait-and-see mode,” airport director Cliff Moshoginis told the Kalamazoo Gazette.

A $31 million tower at the Oakland, Calif., International Airport has also been temporarily halted, and more than 60 Devcon Construction workers are in limbo, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The company is also losing $6,000 a day because of equipment sitting idle at the site, project manager Dan Anello told the paper. “The scary portion for us is the indefinite nature of all this,” he said.

Emergency Equipment: New rescue vehicles and fire stations are on hold at the Roanoke Regional Airport in Virginia, the Orlando-Sanford Airport in Florida, and the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, to name a few. Delays in building a new firefighting and snow-removal facility at the Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio have also put 50 to 60 people out of work, according to the Airports Council International.

The partial shutdown is having some off-airport effects as well. Sound barriers that were being installed around the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada to keep noise levels down for about 3,500 nearby homes will have to wait until Congress gets its act together.

 

Mike Magner contributed to this article.

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