FAA furloughs unprecedented, officials say

A week after Congress failed to extend funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, officials are calling the furloughs triggered by the partial shutdown of agency operations unprecedented.

FAA furloughed 4,000 employees, including almost 1,000 in Washington, after lawmakers failed to reach a last-minute agreement on July 22 on a stopgap funding measure for the agency. Until Congress acts, FAA will not be able to collect federal taxes on airline tickets, which supply the trust fund used to pay employees. Officials estimate the agency is losing $30 million a day as a result of the partial shutdown.

Air traffic controllers are not part of the furlough, but many employees are, including engineering and electronics technicians, computer and logistics specialists, and support staff, among other workers. Those still required to work during the hiatus would receive pay retroactively once funding is restored. But Congress must approve back pay for employees subject to furlough. During the government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, furloughed federal employees were paid retroactively for the time they were off the job; that might not be the case in the current situation at FAA given the tense political climate and the government's fiscal woes.

The impasse over extending FAA's funding is having an impact on employees. "This is unprecedented," said Kori Blalock Keller, a spokeswoman for the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, referring to the furloughs in general. "We are concerned about how this will shake out."

An FAA spokeswoman agreed with Keller: "There have been furloughs before, but never like this," she said. The agency has not had any difficulty getting employees who are considered essential to show up for work during the furlough, she added.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., told Federal News Radio on Friday that he does not see an immediate end to the stalemate. The House and Senate are at odds over a labor provision in the House version that would overturn a National Mediation Board decision, making it easier for rail and aviation workers to unionize. In addition, the House bill, introduced by Mica, eliminates subsidies for airline service to airports located less than 90 miles from a medium or large hub, which has upset some lawmakers from rural areas.

Democratic lawmakers have called for an urgent vote on a clean extension of FAA funding in hopes of bringing 4,000 furloughed employees back to work. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members, supported by other party members, on Tuesday introduced legislation that would extend FAA funding through the end of fiscal 2011 without any newly added provisions. A short-term authorization would allow the agency to operate while lawmakers negotiate a long-term bill, they said.

"PASS is frustrated and looking to Congress to make this right," said Keller. "We're on the same page as the FAA in that regard."

Federal News Radio also reported on Friday that furloughed FAA employees could be eligible for a zero percent interest furlough relief loan from NASA Federal Credit Union.

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