Journalism in the Public Interest

FAQ: Why Congress Flew Home While Airport Inspectors Work Without Pay


An air traffic controller works inside an airport tower simulator on July 14, 2011, at the Denver International Airport in Colorado. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Update (8/4): Looks like the standoff over the FAA is ending earlier than expected. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced on Thursday that a deal has been reached to end the 13-day-long shutdown that put thousands of FAA workers and private-sector construction workers temporarily out of work.

The Senate will pass the House’s stop-gap funding bill, which contains a controversial provision that rolls back subsidies for flights to rural airports. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced he would use his authority to waive the provision for communities that can make the case for continuing the subsidies.

The subsidy program was one of several sticking points in the partisan dispute over FAA funding. A long-term funding agreement has yet to be reached due to disagreement over a provision that would make it more difficult for aviation workers to unionize.

With the Senate not officially adjournedPolitico notes it will only take two lawmakers to pass the legislation in a quick, pro forma session on Friday—ending the impasse. At the estimated cost of $30 million per day, the shutdown cost the FAA nearly $390 million in lost revenue from ticket taxes. 


This post has been updated.

Thought Congress had averted a government shutdown by striking a 2011 budget deal back in April? That’s only partly true.

While lawmakers deadlocked over long-term deficit reduction plans tied to the raising of the debt ceiling, one federal agency—the Federal Aviation Administration—sat in partial shutdown for more than a week. The debt-ceiling is resolved (for now), but the FAA’s partial shutdown looks likely continue for least another month.

So, what’s happened? 

After the debt ceiling vote, Congress left for recess without reaching an agreement to extend the operating authority of the FAA, meaning the agency currently doesn't have the authority to collect taxes on ticket sales, which it uses to pay some 4,000 employees' salaries. The lost revenue amounts to about $200 million a week—or more than $1 billion—in lost revenue from the ticket taxes. 

As a result, thousands of workers have been furloughed and may not get paid for days missed. And without FAA officials to oversee airport construction projects, the agency has issued stop-work orders to more than 200 projects across the country, putting an estimated 70,000 private-sector construction workers temporarily out of work as well.

Can I still fly—and is it safe?

Yes, you can still fly. As we explained back in April when the government was at risk of closing its doors, when a shutdown occurs workers are either categorized as essential or nonessential. Air traffic controllers and plane safety inspectors, of course, have been deemed to be essential and are still on the job.

While Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has continually said that safety hasn’t been compromised, one former FAA chief told CNN that the shutdown itself does present a safety issue—one that has only been mitigated because some FAA workers have been willing to work without pay. 

As former FAA Chief of Staff Michael Goldfarb noted, the FAA's 40 airport inspectors—who make sure that runways and other airport systems are up to standard—were among those who were technically furloughed, but they’ve been asked to work anyway. So, for the time being, these inspectors are working with no pay and are paying their travel expenses out of pocket.

Because of that, members of the public need not fly in fear. After all, Goldfarb pointed out, “Obviously all members of Congress are getting home to their districts safety.”

Who’s benefitting from this?

Probably not you. Initial reports suggested that minus the ticket taxes, consumers could reap some savings on air travel—and some may have at first. But some airlines soon changed their minds and raised their prices so tickets now cost about as much as if the tax were still there. In other words, money that would have gone to funding the FAA has gone straight into the pockets of some major U.S. airlines. 

“This short-term additional revenue for airlines, which does not mean a fare increase for consumers, benefits all stakeholders—customers, employees and investors—by temporarily improving tiny industry margins to better cover costs and enable airlines to invest in their product and service,” a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group for large U.S. airlines, told NPR.

So, why did Congress force the shutdown?

Several minor disputes have led to this impasse. 

The first is an industry-backed provision by House Republicans that would make it harder for aviation and railroad workers to unionize, essentially by counting workers who didn’t vote in a union election as having voted against the union. President Obama has threatened to veto any FAA bill containing this measure, but it’s included in the House version of a long-term reauthorization bill anyway.

The second dispute is over a program—called the Essential Air Service Program—that provides subsidies to airlines that fly into tiny airports servicing more than 100 rural communities. House Republicans have tried to reduce those subsidies and phase them out in all states except for Alaska and Hawaii. The move has been opposed by some lawmakers whose states’ subsidies will be ended.

It’s worth noting that the Government Accountability Office has recommended that Congress reexamine whether funds for the Essential Air Service Program are being used efficiently. But it’s also unclear whether the lawmakers who've proposed cutting the program care much about it one way or the other. Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation committee, assured a conference of airport executives earlier this month that the House added the provision in a stop-gap funding bill as a bargaining chip to win concessions on the unionization issue, reported Aviation Week. “It’s just a tool,” Mica told the executives.

The third dispute is over the number of flights that should be allowed at Washington’s Reagan National Airport—another sticking point for lawmakers who frequent the airport more than the general public. The Washington Post describes the dispute this way:

The number of flights that should be allowed at National has long been a source of friction between members of Congress from the Washington region, who are concerned about noise and the region’s two other major airports, and their colleagues from distant states, who want more direct flights home.

Though these disputes are relatively minor, there's also a bigger backstory that we've only just alluded to. It dates back to 2007—the year that the FAA's last long-term operating authority expired. Ever since, Congress has been unable to agree on new long-term legislation and has instead kept the agency operating through short-term extensions—20 of them, to be exact. Congress was still trying to work out the 21st stop-gap extension when it left for recess, though Transportation Secretary LaHood has for months said the agency needs the sort of long-term reauthorization given to other federal agencies.

Who’s to blame for this?

Well, Transportation Secretary LaHood has placed the blame squarely on Congress: "Because Congress didn't do its work, FAA programs and thousands of public- and private-sector jobs are in jeopardy,” he told reporters.

Democrats had insisted that Republicans drop the labor provision, which they viewed as an industry-backed assault on unions. Republicans had criticized Democrats for unwillingness to eliminate “wasteful programs” such as the rural airport subsidies.

Meanwhile, at the estimated cost of $30 million a day, the nearly two-week-long stalemate will likely waste several times more than what the $200-million subsidy program costs in a year.

When will it be resolved?

Now that Congress has left for recess without resolving the issue, it seems the issue won’t be resolved at least until Congress gets back in session next month. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was vague when he spoke with NPR: “It’ll be closed until … maybe not September, maybe more than that,” he said. Or in other words, as one anonymous Senate staff member told the Post: “Don’t hold your breath.”

They are still at it!  The terrorists of the Republican Party are leaving our skies unsafe.  Over 70,000 private workers are unemployed, because of the Republicans, inspectors are not working,  They do not care who they hurt, all they care is about getting their own way.They want to continue their attempt to destroy unions.  They do not like the fact that union workers, earn more pay, have safer, working conditions, and have a say about these issues.  The airlines, including Delta want to destroy the Unions, shame on them. The Republicans are on a long term attempt to see the only Americans who earn a decent living are the wealthy.  You know that group that pays taxes, have lots of loop holes to get away with fewer taxes.  They resent the fact they pay a large amount of the taxes.  but, they fail to mention, just likes banks they have most of the money.  Sen Hatch wants the poor to pay more taxes, perhaps he could take their blood of the poor and sell it.
I have been around for awhile, I remember World War II, I remember reading about the development of theThird Reich!  While the Republicans haven’t mentioned ovens, I feel they will kill us off by eliminating SS and cutting the hell out of Medicare.  American wake up, before it is too late, we have to take a strong stand, for some reason our President
has been unable to do it!  I long for a strong leader, another Rev. King!

ABC News had a very slanted report tonight.

They blamed the Democrats. There was no mention of the union issue only the closing of rural airports.

The reporter went to an empty Murtha Airport in Johnstown and a Harry Reid news conference on the issue. He questioned Jay Rockefeller about the closing of the West Virginia airport but Reid stepped in and instead of noting the union issue he said something like there are consequences for bad behavior. Reid missed an opportunity.

The reporter ended saying the Republican proposal would save $16 million and the standoff is costing $30 million.

Most people don’t know all the details and would see that report and conclude the Democrats are at fault.

As far as those rural airports go, the Committee Chair (Mica) admitted he added that to the bill and targetted Democrats in retaliation.

Either this reporter was not knowledgable or the report was purposely slanted.

ahh, Jonathan Karl, the darling of the right wing, did that story for ABC; see his fawning Cheney interviews if you doubt this.

To rob the working class of their right to unionize is an act of tyranny.  The Union is our only toehold against slave labor.  To make a man work for free, no matter what his field is lunacy.  Yet these brave workers do this for the security of the crew and passengers.  Does this not point directly to the spirit of these employees?  Are these not the men you wish to run your airports?  It is a scary time to be an American folks.

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