FAA safety inspectors paying dearly for congressional inaction

Some Federal Aviation Administration employees will foot the bill for work-related expenses -- including airfare and hotel rooms -- for weeks without pay if lawmakers fail to pass legislation extending the agency's funding.

A House-passed bill from July that would extend funding for the agency through Sept. 16 failed to gain Senate approval on Tuesday, because it includes cuts to rural airport subsidies. The House left for August recess Monday night and the Senate was scheduled to do the same Tuesday without any further action on the issue.

Nearly 4,000 FAA employees have been on furlough since July 22 after Congress failed to pass a stopgap bill to prevent a partial shutdown. In addition, 40 airport safety inspectors still are on the job but are paying travel and work-related expenses out of their own pockets. These inspectors would have been furloughed, but were deemed excepted because of their safety responsibilities. According to FAA, these employees are using their own credit cards to cover costs related to flying or driving to inspection sites around the country and they are not receiving their paychecks. They will be reimbursed when Congress passes an extension.

"It shows you the dedication these folks have," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told reporters Tuesday. "We're relying on their professional attitudes and professional pride to continue the work they're doing, but it's simply outrageous for us to ask them to carry the burden of hotel rooms and airline tickets. But you know what? They're doing it."

Airport safety inspectors ensure airports operate safely and efficiently, said FAA spokeswoman Marcia Adams. They travel to sites around the country to inspect compliance with safety regulations, oversee construction safety plans, ensure corrective action is taken if safety discrepancies exist and monitor emergency situations, such as natural disasters and aircraft accidents, she said.

No other employees are on the job without pay, Adams said. She declined to speculate on the impact an extended shutdown would have on airport safety inspectors.

Some inspectors have not been affected by the lapse in trust fund dollars, however. Aviation safety inspectors responsible for overseeing the airline industry are paid out of the operations budget and have not been furloughed, said Kori Blalock Keller, spokeswoman for the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, which represents those employees.

President Obama on Tuesday called on lawmakers to act quickly to end the partial shutdown.

"There's another stalemate in Congress right now involving our aviation industry, which has stalled airport construction projects all around the country and put the jobs of tens of thousands of construction workers and others at risk -- because of politics," he said during a speech on the deficit reduction deal. "It's another Washington-inflicted wound on America, and Congress needs to break that impasse now -- hopefully before the Senate adjourns -- so these folks can get back to work."

Several other legislative maneuvers have been suggested to resolve the impasse, but their likelihood of succeeding was unclear.

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