FAA Shutdown Looms as Congress Clashes over Union Rules

Fight over union organizing rights continues.

Congress Big

Congress Big

A heated battle in the House and Senate over union organizing rights is threatening to block congressional action needed to keep the FAA operating, raising the possibility of an agency shutdown as early as this week.

The top issue preventing passage of a new FAA reauthorization bill are changes to National Mediation Board rules that would make it easier for airline and rail employees to form unions. Republicans want the provision overturned, but President Obama has already threatened to veto the bill if the union protections are taken out.

The FAA’s operating authority expires on Friday. The agency has operated under a series of 20 short-term extensions since Sept. 30, 2007, as lawmakers have sought to agree on a long-term funding bill.

Extensions to the FAA’s funding have been routine, but that could be about to change. Republicans have inserted language into the most recent extension that would eliminate Essential Air Services funding in three rural communities located in powerful Democrats’ home states. If the House doesn’t remove that language, Democrats have vowed to reject another temporary extension, effectively leading to an immediate shutdown of the FAA.

The nation’s 15,500 air traffic controllers are considered essential employees and would continue working even if the agency's operating authority were to expire. Funding for airport construction projects would be clamped off, however, and it is possible that other workers would face furloughs. The FAA employs about 32,000 workers outside the controller ranks, although the scope of furloughs would depend on how much money is available in the trust fund and how long any shutdown drags on.

“Congress needs to stop playing games, work out its differences, and pass a clean FAA bill immediately. There is no excuse for not getting this done,” said DOT Secretary Ray LaHood. “Important programs and construction projects are at stake. This stalemate must be resolved.”

General aviation advocacy groups, meanwhile, are warning that the battle in Congress over raising the nation’s debt ceiling opens the door for user fees to be inserted into the FAA reauthorization bill. The National Business Aviation Association and AOPA are urging members to contact their members of Congress in support of the current aviation tax system.