The US aviation system is bracing for two simultaneous disruptions at the end of this week – a looming government shutdown and the expiration of a key aviation law.
Officials say the double-barrel threat would result in millions of dollars in losses daily, scramble efforts to rebuild the air traffic control system, set back technology improvements and further strain the already-stressed aviation system that suffered a series of runway close calls this year.
Rep. Steve Cohen, the top Democrat on the House Aviation subcommittee, warned Wednesday the shutdown may mean “cancellations at airports will occur, and it will negatively impact the flying public.”
Government officials are particularly concerned about how a shutdown would disrupt the air traffic control training pipeline, which is still recovering after the Federal Aviation Administration closed its controller academy at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Intensive training takes years and would pause during a government shutdown. Delaying the current crop of students could create a backlog for the next round of new hires.
“The complexity of the hiring and training process means even a shutdown lasting a few days could mean we will not hit our staffing and hiring targets next year,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday. “There is no good time for a government shutdown. But this is a particularly bad time for a government shutdown.”
The shutdown would also put strain on the Transportation Security Administration. Nearly all – 58,000 – of the agency’s 61,000 employees would continue to report to work, including those screening airplane passengers. But they would do so without getting paid.
A shutdown could cost the travel industry $140 million daily, according to an estimate from the US Travel Association, which analyzed industry losses from a major government shutdown several years ago. That includes direct losses from government officials foregoing travel, but also canceled trips as attractions like national parks close.
The second threat
There is also concern that the Saturday expiration of a dense set of policy instructions will leave the FAA unable to conduct important business.
The law gives the agency permission to collect fees and taxes – including on airline flights and airplane fuel – and sets the boundaries for spending that money. If the law expires at the end of September without renewal, the FAA will be able to neither collect nor spend.
“It’s kind of like a tax holiday for airline charges that never come in,” Buttigieg said.
That would cost the FAA trust fund about $54 million every day, the agency told CNN – funds for airport infrastructure projects and improving FAA technology.
Work would halt, for example, on upgrading the critical safety notice distribution system – known as NOTAMs – that failed in January, causing the first nationwide ground stop since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
It would also halt a set of efforts announced just this month to reduce runway close calls. The $26 million in technology projects will help controllers see where planes and vehicles are on the ground at airports, verify incoming planes are aiming for a runway rather than taxiway, and remind controllers to double-check runways are clear before directing aircraft.
Congress was on track to pass the reauthorization bill this summer. The House passed its version of the bill with broad bipartisan support – a level of support rarely seen in the chamber, a Republican committee aide noted.
But the bill stalled in the Senate.
Sen. Ted Cruz, the top Republican on the committee that oversees the FAA, said at the Regional Airline Association conference this week that he and the committee’s Democratic chairwoman, Sen. Maria Cantwell, held marathon negotiations to develop a compromise bill. But it fell apart on the mid-June morning when the committee was scheduled to vote.
Democrats say a controversial proposal to change pilot training and qualification rules gummed up the process; Cruz said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made the decision to block the bill
Months later, the problem is still unresolved.
“I don’t know where we are now. I think we’re very close on every issue, but we still have an impasse on the Thune-Sinema amendment and with Chuck Schumer,” Cruz said Wednesday, referring to the proposal.
An aide to Cantwell said Wednesday that the legislation is “in a state of limbo.”
“But rest assured, I think everyone understands, at least from the Senate majority perspective, that we’ve got to keep the lights on and they have to keep the FAA authorized,” said Ronce Almond, the Cantwell aide, at the RAA conference.
Lawmakers are working out temporary legislation to keep the FAA operational while lawmakers haggle over the larger policy points. One plan would extend the FAA’s authorities for three months – setting a holiday-season deadline for Congress to work out major policy issues. Some lawmakers think more time is needed.
“They probably do need six months, because the next three months are going to be a lot of issues about the budget, and about Ukraine, and about disaster relief, and about the border,” Cohen said.
Kicking the can down the road has its own risks. Election years do not have a strong track record of producing significant policy legislation, said Bryan Bell, the Democratic staff director for Cohen’s subcommittee.
“They just don’t get done,” Bell said.
After a previous FAA reauthorization expired in 2015, Congress strung together multiple short-term measures – one lasted a year – that guided the FAA for three years.
Even if the Senate works out its internal differences, it will take time for the House and Senate to reconcile their bills, aides noted.
In the meantime, air traffic controllers and other aviation officials deemed essential would continue to report to work – but without pay.
“Our people are pros. They come in, they do what’s required, but they’re also human beings,” Buttigieg said. “And the pressure that they’re under grows and mounts each passing day that they’re in this scenario.”
Air traffic controllers are already under increased scrutiny after a series of barely avoided airliner collisions on US runways this year. While the causes are under investigation, the incidents prompted the FAA to require additional controller training and supervision.
But air traffic controllers have put pressure back on lawmakers and the White House, too. Former President Donald Trump called off a 35-day government shutdown in January 2019 after 10 air traffic controllers – who at that point were missing two paychecks – called out sick, snarling air traffic nationwide.