UPDATE: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announces deal to end FAA shutdown. The Washington Post article
Following the Debt Ceiling Bloodbath, Congress went home for the Summer recess, leaving the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") unfunded and its employees working on a volunteer basis, without pay. 4,000 FAA employees are out of work (indefinitely furloughed), and those who are working, like critical airport safety inspectors (who are constantly checking airport runways, lighting and the many things that assure our safety in the air), are still working, but not drawing any paychecks. This will not change until after Labor Day, when Congress comes back.
Airport safety inspectors must travel to various airports as part of their employment responsibilities. From now until after Labor Day, these FAA employees who keep our skies safe for some 5,000+ commercial flights in the air over the US at any one time daily, have been asked to put their travel expenses on their own personal credit cards. You know, the same credit cards where major banks line up at the Fed Reserve window to get their money nearly free (actually, not free, at taxpayer expense), then lend it back to you via your pocket plastic, at rates which can approach and even exceed 30% per annum. Nice.
In case you are wondering just how jam-packed it is up there in the Friendly Skies, consider this. Going East and West over the US, there are perhaps 10 or more flight levels – for each direction, pick an odd or even (depending on direction) number, in 1,000 vertical foot increments – say, Eastbound – every other odd number from 21,000 feet on up; Westbound – every even number from 20,000 feet on up. We are talking about, possibly, 20 or more vertical levels, at 1,000 foot vertical increments, all the way up to, say, eight miles high, or more. If that sounds incredibly close together for airplanes stacked on top of one another to be flying at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour, it is.
As you board your next flight between now and some time after Labor Day, if and when Congress gets around to it – consider that all these stacked aircraft will now be controlled, and kept from crashing into each other and all of us on the ground, by flight traffic controllers (who will continue to be paid despite the FAA’s de-funding because their pay comes from separate funding) backed up by, essentially, volunteer FAA safety personnel. If that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, then you need to sit through a few more re-runs of the Airport movies . . . and, yes, Snakes on a Plane.
How did we get to the point where the FAA’s funding has run out and Congress has not appropriated funding for the FAA? Well, the debt ceiling crisis occupied all the time that Congress had to spend, and then, like kids racing out of the schoolhouse on the bell for Summer, they all left town, leaving the FAA with no funding. That left the FAA’s critical safety personnel unpaid and basically working on a volunteer basis – even, advancing their own travel expenses on their own credit cards. How would you feel about using your own credit card to cover the expenses of a nation which is some $14+ trillion (soon to be $16.5+ trillion?) in debt?
This situation arose around July 23, born of a dispute between our two major parties over subsidies for commercial air service to rural airports (smaller airports that bigger airlines do not want to serve – guess whose districts they are located in). The current state of affairs is costing taxpayers millions of dollars daily because, with no FAA, taxes cannot be collected in connection with flights – this may end up costing the government some $25million per day. Underlying this is a stalemate resulting from the larger context disagreement over how labor elections in the airline industry should be regulated (or not) by federal rules.
We are assured by FAA officials that safety will not be compromised (easy for them to say), but, FAA Administrator, Randy Babbitt, said to reporters earlier this week that the FAA was, essentially, depending on the "professionalism" of airport safety inspectors to continue working without pay until Congress gets this right and funds the FAA again. All airport construction having stopped, thousands of construction workers (some 70,000 construction workers busy building new runways, new lighting and new safety features, according to one commentator) are also out of work now as a result.
Some $1.2Billion could be the total cost when this standoff is over. Why is funding the FAA such a partisan fight now? Well, it has been for some time. Funding the FAA has been another stop and start process, with very short extensions involved, much like the debt ceiling crisis was until last weekend, when Congress finally got that one worked out.
So, kiss off some $25million per day in tax revenues while our Congress members are back home visiting their constituents, getting roundly yelled at in Town Meetings, and resting up from all the late nights and weekends they worked this last Congressional term. And, while we are, of course, being assured that safety will not suffer; just imagine if there is an aviation disaster while the FAA is not funded. Perhaps it will happen at one of those incredibly over-crowded airports with planes coming in and going out every few seconds, like back on March 27, 1977, when two 747’s collided on the runway of an airport on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, costing some 583 human souls, and still ranking, some quarter century later, as the deadliest accident in aviation history. Or, maybe, one giant plane-full of passengers comes down on top of, or just too damn close to, another – like the accident which happened at LAX a number of years ago when they pried a commuter plane full of unlucky passengers out from under a large commercial jet which had literally come in on top of it. Planned improvements to the safety features of operating at our airports might have prevented such terrible loss of life, but, alas, that construction and continuing safety work and maintenance has been suspended due to the de-funding of the FAA.