FAA officials caught in political winds

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has found itself at the center of controversy after recent decisions to suspend flights to Israel and restrict air travel over Ferguson, Mo., and Ukraine.

In each case, the agency said it was acting solely in the interest of passengers on U.S. airlines, but the moves led critics to question the agency’s decision-making.

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Former Transportation department officials told The Hill that the timing of the FAA’s interventions were not political and that the agency was only focused on safety issues.

“I have been a close observer of the FAA for more than 30 years. It has never let political or foreign policy considerations influence its decisions about flight safety,” said former Transportation Secretary James Burnley, who served in the Reagan administration. 

“I don’t believe it is doing so now,” he added.

The agency has found itself in the middle of the summer’s biggest headlines, from the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas fight and the police crackdown on protests in Ferguson, Mo.

Critics accused the agency of playing politics on behalf of the White House when the FAA banned U.S. airlines from flying to Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport in late July, amid growing violence between the Israeli military and Hamas.

Some lawmakers suggested the decision to halt fights was intended to pressure Israel to halt its military offensive.

“Aiding Hamas while simultaneously isolating Israel does two things.  One, it helps our enemy.  Two, it hurts our ally,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in a statement released after the FAA announced its Israeli flight ban.

“The facts suggest that President Obama has just used a federal regulatory agency to launch an economic boycott on Israel, in order to try to force our ally to comply with his foreign-policy demands,” he charged. 

The FAA issued its Israeli ban after a rocket strike forced a Delta Air Lines flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to be diverted to Paris.

“The notice was issued in response to a rocket strike which landed approximately one mile from Ben Gurion International Airport on the morning of July 22, 2014,” the agency said in its notice to commercial airline pilots. 

The agency lifted the Israeli flight ban less than two days after was issued, but not quickly enough for critics. 

“Tourism is an $11 billion industry for Israel, which is in the middle of a summer high season already seriously diminished by the conflict initiated by Hamas,” Cruz said. “Group tours have been cancelling at a 30 percent rate."

The senator said the flight ban could deliver a “crippling blow to a key economic sector.”

“It hardly matters if or when the ban is lifted,” he added, arguing that travelers would be discouraged by uncertainty over future flight restrictions. 

The agency also cited passenger safety for its decision to ban flights over Ukraine after the crash of a Malaysian jet believed to have been downed by rocket fire from Russian separatists.

“On the evening of July 17, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) prohibiting U.S. flight operations until further notice, in the airspace over eastern Ukraine, due to recent events and the potential for continued hazardous activities,” the agency said in a statement after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot out of the sky with 295 passengers onboard.

The agency had previously barred U.S. airlines from flying near Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine, but that restriction was expanded to all of Eastern Ukraine after the Malaysia jet crashed. 

The FAA’s decision to restrict flights over Ferguson sparked further controversy.

The agency defended its decision to restrict flights over the St. Louis suburb “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities” after protests raged in the city over the fatal shooting by police of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old teenager.

Ferguson officials said shots were fired at police helicopters during protests in the days ahead of the FAA’s intervention. 

But a sharp crackdown by police equipped with military gear and vehicles, that involved the arrest of two reporters, led some to question the FAA’s decision.

Critics argued that the flight ban prevented news helicopters from covering the protests and the police response. The FAA noted that the ban was requested by local law enforcement officials and only affected flights that were lower than 3,000 feet above ground level.

The FAA’s bans on flights over Ukraine and Ferguson still remain in place, though the Missouri restriction is scheduled to expire on Monday. 

The agency’s defenders say FAA has not acted unusually this summer, despite the number of high-profile decisions.

“FAA flight restrictions are common occurrence,” said former FAA deputy administrator Linda Daschle, “and they are based on safety.” 

“We have numerous flight restrictions over our nation’s capital,” Daschle, who served under President Clinton and is the wife of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), added in an email to The Hill. 

“There can be temporary flight restrictions imposed around major events, such as a political convention,” she continued.  

Daschle said that despite the increased media attention this summer, the FAA was acting within its normal authority.

“The more common flight restrictions are called Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) and are issued when runways are closed or air traffic control equipment is down, for example,” she said.

“It is usually the media that highlights some restrictions over others.”