Amid furloughs, Secretary LaHood presses Congress for FAA funding

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Monday implored Congress to approve a funding measure for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as airport construction projects ground to a halt.

About 4,000 FAA workers were furloughed over the weekend after the last appropriations bill for the agency passed by Congress expired Friday at midnight. The chambers remain at odds on a new measure, and little appeared to change Monday.

On a conference call with reporters, LaHood said something should happen soon to restore funding.

“Congress needs to get its act together and come back to Washington to work on passing an FAA bill,” he said. 

LaHood detailed airport projects that will be on hold until that happens. Among them are new air traffic towers in Las Vegas; Palm Springs, Calif.; Oakland, Calif.; Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and Gulfport, Miss. The projects are worth more than $142 million.

Also on hold is a $6 million project to demolish the old tower at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, LaHood said.

The projects can be revived as soon as the impasse in Congress ends.

“If this thing gets resolved in the next few hours or the next couple of days, people are going to go back to work,” LaHood said.

However, that appears unlikely after Congress went home for the weekend without passing a new FAA bill, despite dire warnings from LaHood. Little was said Monday about the issue as Capitol Hill focused on the debate over the federal debt ceiling.

At issue is a 21st consecutive short-term measure for the FAA, which has been operating without a long-term authorization bill since 2007. The House voted on Wednesday to approve another quick fix, but the chamber’s bill included changes to the Essential Air Service (EAS) program that provides grants to airlines for flying to rural airports, which the Senate and White House said should be left for a longer FAA funding bill.

Republican leaders in the House said they were not taking another vote on a bill without the provisions, and Senate Democrats said they would not vote on the bill as amended by the House, leading to the stalemate.

“The Senate continues to keep FAA programs in shutdown mode, workers off the job and projects on hold in order to protect a few high air service subsidies — subsidies they already voted to eliminate in their own FAA bill,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee spokesman Justin Harclerode said Monday in a statement. 

“So in the end, the Senate can’t even cut just a few million dollars representing the most egregious examples of subsidization in the EAS program,” Harclerode said.

As they did last week, Democrats saw it differently Monday. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said the GOP was holding the FAA bill “hostage to their politics.”

“This issue is too serious for a stalemate because the House leadership is insisting on a provision pushed primarily by Delta Airlines to benefit their anti-worker agenda,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “That provision has already been rejected by the Senate, and the president says he’ll veto it, so it is a nonstarter.” 

Rockefeller called again for the House to begin conference negotiations on the longer FAA bill, which has been held up by the change to union rules for railroad and airline workers that were in the House bill.

Meanwhile, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said Monday that the FAA is not completely out of money during this period, but that the Aviation Trust Fund that provides the money for the 4,000 furloughed employees “was like a checking account.”

“It runs balances. Money comes in, money goes out,” he said. “The problem we have right now is the deposits just stopped.” 

Babbitt said the Aviation Trust Fund brings in about $10 billion annually.

Even as they sounded alarms about airport construction, Babbitt and LaHood continued to work to reassure passengers that air travel safety would not be affected by the furloughs. Air-traffic controllers have been largely unaffected because they are not paid out of the trust fund.

But Airports Council International North America President Gregory Principato said Monday that travelers could feel the pain of the furlough financially.

“The shutdown of the FAA on Friday leaves airports across the country and their communities in a bind,” Principato said in a statement. “While the airlines are making hay, up to $25 million a day in higher fares now that the aviation taxes are no longer authorized, airports are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

“Congress needs to pass a clean FAA extension and deal with their policy differences as they continue negotiations on a final FAA reauthorization bill,” he continued.

LaHood pledged Monday to hold press conferences every day until that happens.