AIN Blog: The FAA Shutdown Wasn’t over EAS

 - August 5, 2011, 8:17 AM

So it took a torrent of battling press releases, multiple sound bites and numerous press briefings before we finally learned the real hang-up over the FAA extension bill, and it wasn’t three little airports in West-by-god-Virginia and two other states.

When the dust-up began, it was said to be over a provision inserted in the House-passed version that included reforms to the Essential Air Services (EAS) program. Democrats were incensed that a routine funding extension bill would contain a substantive policy change.

In addition to cutting EAS service to 10 communities, which the Senate already had done, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, upped the ante by capping subsidies at $1,000 per passenger, which captured three more rural airports. Two of them were in the home states of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee.

Sen. John Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has long championed the EAS program, which provides a federal subsidy for air carriers to operate out of more than 100 communities in mostly rural areas.

But Mica had telegraphed that EAS was a stalking horse. When the extension was introduced in the House on July 15, Mica said, “[I]t is time for the Senate to put the safety of the traveling public above their own political posturing and paybacks to the labor movement.”

Rockefeller countered that the EAS provision was retaliation for the Senate’s refusal to accept language on the National Mediation Board [in the still-pending multi-year FAA reauthorization bill] that would adversely affect workers’ rights.

“As your press release [implied], you inserted the EAS language into the FAA extension in retaliation for the Senate’s refusal to accept your language on the National Mediation Board [NMB],” Rockefeller said in a letter to Mica. “At no point during our discussions have we ever linked reforms to the EAS program to language on NMB.

“I made it clear from the beginning of our negotiations that the NMB language included in your [long-term FAA reauthorization] bill–or any other language adversely impacting workers’ rights–could not pass the Senate. As you know, the Senate voted on this issue last year and our leadership considers that matter settled.”

Rockefeller said that Mica’s attempt to punish the Senate by hurting EAS guaranteed that the Senate would reject the FAA extension. But on Friday, the Senate voted for the House extension, ending a two-week partial shutdown of the FAA and the idling of more than 70,000 airport construction workers.