FAA In Limbo After Congress Misses Deadline

Today might be a good day to buy an airline ticket, because you won't have to pay any tax on it. The Federal Aviation Administration's authorization ran out Friday night when Congress failed to renew it. Air traffic controllers and other essential employees are still on the job, but 4,000 others have been laid off, and construction projects have come to a halt. It's because the House and Senate cannot agree on subsidies for commercial flights to rural areas.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

The nation's air traffic controllers are on the job this morning. That's the good news. But many other employees of the Federal Aviation Administration have an unscheduled day off. That's because Congress did not meet a midnight Friday deadline to extend the FAA's authority to operate. For details, we've got NPR's Brian Naylor on the line.

Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Good morning, Mary Louise.

LOUISE KELLY: All right. So what is the situation at airports this morning?

NAYLOR: Well, by all accounts things are fairly normal. Flights are departing and landing on schedule, because, as you say, the air traffic controllers are on the job.

LOUISE KELLY: So not too much of an impact so far then if you're trying to catch a flight today?

NAYLOR: No. The air traffic controllers are considered essential employees, so they were told to report to work. However, there are some 4,000 other agency employees who won't be coming in today. About 1,000 of those in the Washington, D.C. area. And also construction projects at airports around the country will be halted. That includes work being done at major airports, such as Chicago's O'Hare.

In fact, there's projects in all 50 states that are going to be put on hold. And these construction workers will be idled in an industry where the unemployment is already pretty high, because the money for these projects comes from the aviation trust fund and that is inoperable because of the shutdown.

LOUISE KELLY: Brian, I understand one side effect of this is that it might be a really good day to buy an airline ticket, because you won't have to pay any tax on it.

NAYLOR: Well, in some cases that's the case. Because of the shutdown, the airlines are not collecting the tax for the airline tickets. However, most of the major carriers now say that they're actually going to take that money for themselves. And so they're actually raising their fares a bit.

So if you're flying any of the major carriers - American, United, Southwest. They've all raised their fares. So you won't notice any difference. Some of the smaller carriers will pass that savings along to consumers, but most consumers won't notice any difference.

LOUISE KELLY: OK. So the big question: Why did Congress let the FAA authorization expire in the first place?

NAYLOR: They've been talking about revamping the FAA's authorization for several years. They've got some big issues to deal with. They're trying to upgrade the system that - the technology that the air traffic controllers use to track flights. And while they've been wrestling this major bill, they've passed some 20 temporary extensions of the reauthorization.

This time, though, a relatively minor issue got in the way, one that would limit federal subsidies at a handful of rural airports, saving about $16 million. House Republicans want to end this subsidy and so they inserted a provision in this temporary reauthorization that would affect some of the smallest of the small airports.

However, those airports happen to be in some of the Senate leaders' states. And so it's almost like a little schoolyard squabble holding this bill up.

LOUISE KELLY: Brian, just quickly, you mentioned temporary authorizations. But they've ultimately failed to reach a deal. This sounds an awful lot like what we're seeing happening on a much larger scale with the talks over the debt ceiling.

NAYLOR: You're right, Mary Louise. You know, this is just small potatoes compared to the trillions of dollars they're talking about with the debt ceiling. But it's telling that, you know, something even this small as this can't be resolved. It's just indicative of how dysfunctional this Congress has become.

LOUISE KELLY: All right. Thanks very much, Brian.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Mary Louise.

LOUISE KELLY: That's NPR's Brian Naylor.

This is NPR News.

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