Crumbling, unsafe airports are so very, very unreasonable

As it turns out, the measure I wrote about below did not pass the Senate (h/t David Dayen). On further analysis the full story is even worse than I thought.

Full funding for the FAA appears to have been a political football since 2007, and the agency has instead gotten by on 20 temporary measures (the current was to have been the 21st). The current impasse began in July, and reached a new level of farce in the Senate today, per the LA Times:

The showdown began last month when the House passed a GOP bill to extend the FAA’s operating authority that cut air service subsidies by $16.5 million. Democrats said the House was trying to impose policies that hadn’t been negotiated with Senate and using the subsidies as leverage to force them to cut a deal on the labor issue. The labor provision is in a separate, long-term FAA funding bill.

On Monday, Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the committee that oversees the FAA, and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the senior Republican on the committee, floated a proposal to restore full operating authority to the FAA while cutting air service subsidies $71 million. The plan fell apart when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he would use parliamentary procedures to tie up the Senate in an effort to prevent a vote on the measure.

In other words, when offered cuts many times what they originally demanded, the Republicans said no, which makes clear that the cuts are not the main event.

Hutchison questioned the logic of allowing a stalemate over relatively small savings in subsidy cuts to prevent the government from collecting many times that amount in revenues designated for the operation of the nation’s air traffic system.

“This just does not make sense,” Hutchison said.

The subsidies program was created after airlines were deregulated in 1978 to ensure continued air service on less profitable routes to remote communities. The program has grown to provide service to about 150 communities, from Muscle Shoals, Ala., to Pelican, Alaska, and costs about $200 million a year. Critics say the subsides are too high and some of the communities are within a reasonable drive from a hub airport.

For reference, the FAA takes in roughly $200 million weekly in tax revenue, which means that – assuming this remains unresolved until Congress returns – lost tax revenue will likely top $1.2 billion.

Coburn was later joined by Hatch, who was at least more honest about his objectives:

Coburn told reporters earlier in the day he would block any bill to end the shutdown that doesn’t eliminate air service subsidies for communities that are within 90 miles of a hub airport…


Later, Rockefeller sought a vote on a “clean” bill to end the shutdown that didn’t include any subsidy cuts or other policy provisions. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, blocked the vote, saying he was concerned about the labor issue, although the bill didn’t contain a labor provision.

This is not negotiating, and it is far from “bipartisan bickering.”

And as for the costs, they go far beyond $200 million per week. There are 77,000 construction jobs that have been put on hold, more than 4,000 FAA personnel are on furlough, and most shockingly, this (source: AP/AJC):

The agency has a budget of more than $16 billion this year and employs 47,000 people. Air traffic controllers have remained on the job. Administration officials have vowed that safety won’t be compromised and travelers won’t be inconvenienced.

But FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt revealed Monday that airport safety inspectors nationwide have been working without pay and shouldering travel expenses themselves since the shutdown began.

The 40 inspectors are in charge of regular checks covering runways, navigation aids and other systems at dozens of airports and airlines. A typical inspector may travel to five airports in a two-week period and rack up thousands of dollars in hotel and airline tickets, Babbitt said.

“We’re asking for them to put the balance on their credit cards,” he said. “It’s not right to ask them to do that, it’s just not.”

Contrast the willingness to inflict all of this on the American public with this stirring denunciation:

“Construction projects all over America are held up at our airports,” said Reid, blaming Republicans for the impasse. “It’s so very, very unreasonable.”  (source: The Hill)


Only in America do we expect the people who keep us safe to work for free while Congress goes on a four-week vacation.

And because I can’t stand to end with more political failure, I’ll end with a huge thanks to the airport safety inspectors for their dedication and professionalism. They deserve much better than this.

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