March 3, 2021

Worry Grows Over Delays in F.A.A. Pay

While airline passengers are unlikely to see any immediate effects of the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, federal officials ratcheted up pressure on Congress to break the impasse that has temporarily put 4,000 F.A.A. employees out of work. Members of Congress have mostly left for their August break, but some leaders continued to point fingers across the aisle, each party blaming the other for failing to restore funds to the agency provisionally.

The shutdown, which was in its 12th day on Wednesday, has left 40 F.A.A. airport safety inspectors working without pay and having to pay their own expenses to travel between airports. The transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, praised their dedication while personally guaranteeing that passengers had no reasons to worry about the safety of air travel in the United States.

“I can say, without equivocation, safety will never be compromised. Flying is safe. And passenger schedules should not be compromised by this issue,” Mr. LaHood told reporters at a White House briefing.

Mr. LaHood, President Obama and even members of the House and Senate urged Congress to act during its recess to pass a bill that would restore F.A.A. funds. The shutdown is costing the government $30 million a day in forgone taxes on airline tickets.

Before meeting with his cabinet to discuss the issue, Mr. Obama called it “a lose-lose-lose situation that can be easily solved if Congress gets back into town and does its job.”

“And they don’t even have to come back into town,” he added, noting that both the House and the Senate are in pro forma session this month, and each could agree to adopt a compromise bill by unanimous consent.

Not everyone agrees, however, that safety “will never be compromised,” as Mr. LaHood said. Officials of the Airports Council International, a trade group representing nearly 300 airports in North America, said in interviews that safety at some airports could be affected if airports miss the peak summer construction season.

“Passengers may not be seeing the impact immediately, but it will be felt eventually,” Deborah McElroy, executive vice president of the council’s North American branch, said. “Airports will not be able to proceed with projects that enhance safety, enhance efficiency and reduce delays for passengers.”

The F.A.A. has shut more than 200 of its projects, including new control towers, airport runway lighting projects and security enhancements. In addition, airports in 19 states are facing delays in runway construction projects, screening checkpoint expansions and aircraft parking areas.

Roughly 43,000 of the F.A.A.’s 47,000 employees, including air traffic controllers and the safety officials who inspect airplanes, are being paid and remain on the job because their salaries are covered by the agency’s general fund. That, Mr. LaHood said, has let the F.A.A. maintain near-normal operations and leave passenger schedules untouched.

The 4,000 furloughed employees, including the federal airport safety inspectors, are paid through the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, which is financed by taxes on passenger airline tickets. The F.A.A.’s authority to continue collecting those taxes expired on July 22.

The airport inspectors oversee the safe operation of taxiways and runways and certify airports for operation. Mr. LaHood said those employees were working without pay because they were deemed essential a under federal law that allows some government workers to work in the event of a government shutdown.

Democratic senators and representatives accused Republicans of “holding hostage” the legislative process by refusing to pass a “clean” bill that would permit temporary funds for the F.A.A. — that is, one not encumbered with provisions like cutting elements of subsidized air service to rural airports.

Republicans pointed out that the House had passed a bill reauthorizing the F.A.A. three days before the agency had to shut down. The Senate never voted on the bill, although the bill would most likely have failed if it had been brought to a vote. Both houses of Congress have approved long-term extensions but so far have been unable to agree on a conference to resolve their differences.

Edward Wyatt reported from Washington, and Steven Greenhouse from New York.

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