Before the meltdown on the debt limit, there was the collapse of an agreement to reauthorize programs at the Federal Aviation Administration. So the first symptoms of the dysfunction in Congress showed up not on Wall Street or Main Street but at the nation’s airports.
After the debt deal, members of Congress are leaving town with the FAA mess unresolved.
After approving 20 extensions of the FAA’s funding authority in the past four years, Congress failed to pass a new one when the latest authorization measure expired on July 22. Republicans accused Democrats of refusing to go along with modest cuts in spending levels; Democrats blamed Republicans for blocking the extension because one provision would implement a federal labor panel’s ruling on union elections.
Regardless of the reasons for the legislative breakdown, the harsh reality was that the law’s expiration resulted in a partial shutdown of FAA programs, furloughs for more than 4,000 FAA workers, and stop-work orders on airport projects in all 50 states.
The anger over the impasse in the aviation world has been overshadowed by the widespread public fury over the deadlock on the federal budget, but frustrations continue to grow, especially among airport managers and aviation companies.
“Twenty extensions is too many but without extension 21 and a full reauthorization, airports will be unable to move forward on vital safety and security projects that create jobs locally and improve the national aviation infrastructure,” said Gregory Principato, president of the Airports Council International-North America.
“Allowing the authorization to lapse has resulted in unconscionable and completely avoidable negative impacts to aviation and our economy,” said Marion Blakey, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. “The longer Congress waits, the worse those impacts will be.”
Nor is the FAA shutdown playing well in Peoria, the Illinois city famously considered to be a gauge of popular sentiment across America. “[Transportation] Secretary [Ray] LaHood assures us that this will not affect safety. ...All the same I’m glad I’m not flying commercial anywhere in the next few days,” said a comment posted by “AV8R” on the website Peoria.com last week.
Peoria, also LaHood’s hometown, is particularly concerned about the shutdown, since it has delayed site selection for a new tower at the city’s airport to replace the “ancient 1959 structure that is falling apart,” according to a list of delayed projects put together by the Airports Council International.
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.
This article appears in the August 2, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.