They don’t take tickets, hand peanuts to passengers or control airliners in flight, but the people furloughed a week ago by a funding stalemate in Congress are key players in the future of aviation.
They are thousands of construction workers in Warrenton, Richmond, Baltimore, New York, Memphis, Los Angeles and elsewhere, many of them expanding airports to handle anticipated increases in air travel. More significantly, hundreds of engineers working on the multibillion-dollar air-traffic-control system expected to revolutionize air travel have been sidelined.
Those engineers, many of them working out of the Federal Aviation Administration’s test center, are among the 4,000 FAA workers furloughed as nonessential when funding expired July 23.
“While there is no immediate impact to air-traffic-control operations, many of the FAA furloughs have occurred in Next Generation Air Transportation System and air-traffic-control program upgrades,” said Marion C. Blakey, a former FAA administrator who is now president of the Aerospace Industries Association. “Significant delays in these programs would undermine the economic and environmental benefits they are expected to provide.”
Airlines, which are jittery about the need to invest billions in the program commonly called NextGen, have been looking to Congress to pass a long-term authorization bill that would impose performance deadlines on the FAA to deliver the program.
Blakey worries that contractors working on other FAA construction programs would face a cash-flow crunch that would force them to lay off more workers.
The shutdown has affected projects of all sizes, including a $9,000 electrical project in Portland, Maine, the construction of new air-traffic facilities in multiple cities and the massive development of NextGen. The FAA says it has issued 219 stop-work orders for almost $11 billion in projects.
Unlike the titanic battle over the national debt, the disputes that have hamstrung the FAA since its funding expired can’t be calculated in trillions or billions of dollars. Instead, they are minor, mostly parochial issues that, on their face, seem easily resolved through earnest negotiation.
“Ninety-nine percent of this has been agreed on,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.). “And we just need to wrap it up here. It’s just a couple of items and it can all fall into place.”
Mica has been cast as the villain on the Senate floor for complicating a stopgap funding bill with a provision he knew would be onerous to key senators, a provocation for which he makes no apology because he considers it a means to a larger end.
“I’m not going to be chairman of the committee that has 20 extensions,” he said, referring to the fact that the current extension bill would be the 21st since the last FAA authorization expired, in 2007. “I’ve got to bring it to some successful conclusion. I’m sorry, I just don’t know any other way to move the process forward.”
Mica said he and House Republican leaders won’t cave in the face of pressure from the Senate, the Obama administration and a growing chorus of alarmed aerospace industry leaders.
“You just can’t slam the door on the House and walk away,” he said. “I don’t intend to budge. There has to be some movement on the Senate side.”
Mica said his gambit in producing a stop-gap extension bill unpalatable to the Senate was to spur resolution on the remaining differences between long-term authorization bills passed by the two houses.
The result has been a deadlock that allowed FAA funding to expire, forced the furloughs of thousands, and cost an estimated $30 million a day in lost ticket-tax revenue, which all but a few airlines decided to pocket by raising their prices.
Some lawmakers have called on airlines to pass the temporary savings on to consumers and to issue tax refunds for passengers who bought tickets before the shutdown but flew after.
Airlines have not been moved.
“The airline industry is sick, it’s anemic,” Sharon Pinkerton, a senior vice president of the Air Transport Association, said during a recent Senate hearing.
“Our revenues have to be able to cover our costs. We haven’t been doing that in a sustained way.”
Unsure how the conflict will play out, the FAA cautioned its senior managers that it might take two weeks or more to resolve.
House and Senate committee staff members have been negotiating for weeks to iron out differences between the two long-term bills. Although the House has not appointed a formal conference committee, Mica said he has spoken with John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate commerce committee, and others on the Senate side.
“They sent over language designed to hurt my state, the majority leader’s state, and the chairman of the Finance Committee’s state,” he said during one of two counterattacks last week from the Senate floor. “This is not policy; it is pettiness.”
The headline issue is money: The House bill would allocate about $15 billion per year for each of four years; the Senate bill has an average of about $17.3 billion per year for each of two years.
The minor issues that have proved to be major obstacles involve a controversial labor ruling, the number of flights that should be added at Reagan National Airport, and federal subsidies for commercial services to small airports.
The House bill would add 10 daily round-trip flights at National and the Senate bill 24 such trips. Other minor differences include how airlines would be chosen to receive the slots.
Mica ultimately wants to eliminate a $163 million program that provides federal subsidies for flights to small airports, but he recognizes the strength of opposition to ending a program that began in 1978 as a temporary plan to ensure air service during airline deregulation.
To spur Senate action on the long-term legislation, Mica added provisions to the House funding extension that would have eliminated service to three small airports, one in Nevada, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D), and another in Montana, home of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D).
“I’ve made that a focal point because I know that they’re very interested in that issue,” Mica said.
The labor issue became the focal point of Rockefeller’s frustration, and he said repeatedly that Republicans were pushing it in support of anti-union efforts by Delta Air Lines.
At issue is a National Mediation Board rule that mandates that airline unionization efforts be decided by a majority of those who vote, negating a long-standing rule that said eligible voters who cast no ballot would be counted as voting against unionization.
The House long-term funding bill would reverse that ruling.
Mica said in an interview last week that he would be open to dropping that provision if the Senate agreed to make it easier for union members to vote to decertify their union.
“I’ve offered that to them,” he said. “I haven’t created an impediment to negotiating on that issue. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, there’s something wrong here. I don’t know where [Rockefeller’s] going.’ ”
Mica said he has never spoken to Delta executives or their lobbyists.
“Of all the airlines, the one I’ve had issues with in the past has been Delta,” he said. “I do everything I can to avoid flying them because I don’t like flying through Atlanta. So, it’s ironic that they think I’m helping them.”