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Bipartisan Bill Would Exempt FAA From Shutdowns, Preventing Furloughs and Missed Pay

Impacts to air system played key role in ending the last shutdown.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing new legislation to essentially exempt the Federal Aviation Administration from federal shutdowns, giving it access to non-appropriated funds that would allow all of its employees to continue working with pay while other agencies shutter. 

The 2021 Aviation Funding Stability Act (H.R. 4042) would enable FAA to tap into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund during a lapse in appropriations, ensuring none of its workforce is furloughed or has to work without pay. About 17,000 employees, or 40% of the FAA workforce, were furloughed during the 2018-2019 shutdown, during which employees and stakeholders noted key maintenance was delayed, workgroups were unable to meet, training and hiring were halted, and modernization efforts were frozen. Air traffic controllers and other exempted staffers continued to work but missed paychecks during the record-setting 35-day shutdown. 

“We can’t allow for everything to be thrown into chaos in the event of a federal government shutdown,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and introduced the measure. “Our bipartisan bill will ensure that the FAA can keep operating without interruption, which is essential to protecting public safety and the livelihoods of aviation workers who keep our country and economy moving.”

As the last shutdown dragged on in 2019, an increasing number of air traffic controllers called out to their airport jobs. LaGuardia Airport in New York City was forced to institute a ground stop, leading to a turning point in negotiations and the government reopening shortly thereafter. 

Under the new bill, FAA would automatically continue operating for 30 days with no impacts to employees or operations. 

“Thanks to a skilled workforce, including the dedicated air traffic controllers and essential safety personnel who work at the FAA, U.S. aviation is the gold standard of flight,” said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash, who chairs the transportation committee’s panel on aviation. “Enabling the FAA to draw from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund during a funding lapse ensures essential personnel who work under stressful situations continue to get paid, and the largest, busiest and most complex airspace system in the world remains safe and functional for air passengers and crew.”

Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, another cosponsor on the bill, stressed that air traffic controllers are “essential workers” who “have to show up to work” and therefore should be paid. About 350,000 federal workers were furloughed during the 2018-2019 shutdown, while another 500,000 worked without immediate pay. All the impacted workers eventually received backpay

The bill would “provide significant shutdown insurance for the National Airspace System and our members,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said. “A stable, predictable funding stream is crucial to the FAA’s ability to maintain pre-pandemic capacity and modernize the physical and technological infrastructure of the system.” 

The transportation committee approved similar legislation last Congress after it won broad bipartisan support, but it never received a vote on the House floor.