U.S. congressional leaders agreed August 4 to a temporary funding extension of the FAA, ending a two-week standoff that forced the agency to furlough 4,000 employees and stop work on 219 airport construction projects employing some 70,000 workers. The row between the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House of Representatives also cost the government more than $300 million in uncollected federal taxes on airline tickets since the FAA’s operating authority expired on July 23. Delta and US Airways, among other airlines, have announced they will refund passengers for the amount charged in fares they would have otherwised used for taxes during the shutdown.
Long-term FAA reauthorization legislation has stalled since September 2007 over differences in Congress, which before the shutdown had passed 20 short-term funding extensions to keep the agency operating. Although bills from both bodies included cuts to Essential Air Service, a federal program that supports airline service to little-used, mainly rural airports, the House’s bill would completely eliminate the program in the lower 48 states by 2013.
Not only did the Senate reject that part of the House’s bill, it balked when Florida congressman John Mica, Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, introduced a provision to limit subsidies to $1,000 per person. The provision would effectively remove from the program airports located in the home states of Democratic senators Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Max Baucus, who heads the Senate Finance Committee.
With attention focused on the bitter debate in Congress over the nation’s debt ceiling, the matter simmered until Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt called on Congress on July 20 to pass a “clean” extension of FAA reauthorization to avoid airport construction delays and employee furloughs. Their calls went unheeded, and the agency’s 20th funding extension expired July 22 at midnight.
Finally, after LaHood said he could issue waivers that would allow the 13 EAS communities initially affected by the House’s bill to continue to get their subsidies, the Senate relented, accepting the House-passed version of the FAA funding extension.
“House Republicans made it clear they would continue to hold the entire aviation system hostage,” charged West Virginia senator John D. Rockefeller IV, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I deplore those tactics, but ultimately the stakes for real people are too high.”
Paul Lowe and Gregory Polek contributed to this article.