The law that ended furloughs of U.S. air-traffic controllers covers most of the cost largely by taking about $250 million from airport construction-project funding this fiscal year, according to trade groups.
The cash will come from an account intended to finance work such as safety improvements and pavement repairs, said Todd Hauptli, head of the American Association of Airport Executives’ Airport Legislative Alliance, based in Alexandria, Virginia.
“The impacts will definitely be felt by airports,” he said in an interview. “This is not an insignificant cut.”
The cut means fewer construction jobs at airports this year and sets a precedent that Federal Aviation Administration Airport Improvement Program money can be redirected to deal with agency cash shortages, according to Hauptli and Debbie McElroy, executive vice president for policy and external affairs at Airports Council International-North America. Congress passed the legislation April 26.
“This must be the first and only time AIP funding is used for FAA operations,” the Washington-based Airports Council said in an April 30 letter to agency Administrator Michael Huerta. “We will adamantly oppose this practice in the future.”
President Barack Obama signed the measure yesterday, letting the FAA transfer $253 million within its budget to end the unpaid time off that led to thousands of flight delays. Huerta had said the furloughs were necessary to cut $637 million in spending under the across-the-board federal budget reductions known as sequestration. About 15,000 controllers were affected.
The legislation says the agency can use airport improvement money or funds from “any other program or account” as needed.
All employee furloughs were suspended April 27, according to a statement from the FAA. The agency hasn’t said where it will get the money needed for the action. It also hasn’t said whether 149 airport towers operated by private contractors will be closed June 15, as scheduled.
While specifics haven’t been released, agency officials have said in discussions that the bulk of the funds to prevent the unpaid time off for controllers will come from airport- improvement grant money, Hauptli said.
The Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport in Louisiana plans to request $1.6 million this year from the FAA to repave an area where planes park, Anthony Marino, the East Baton Rouge Parish director of aviation, said in an interview. If the money doesn’t arrive, the airport’s federal funding would be cut more than 20 percent, Marino said.
The facility, with an annual budget of $13 million, has become accustomed to getting FAA funds each year, Marino said.
“Somebody at the end of the list is going to lose some projects,” he said. “I just hope it isn’t going to be us.”
The program is funded by taxes and fees on airline tickets and aviation fuel that are exempt from sequestration cuts.
The $253 million that could be taken away from airport improvements is 7.5 percent of the $3.35 billion allotted by the program for projects this year. The effect of the cuts may be much larger on some airports than others, according to Hauptli and McElroy.
Most grants are awarded by formulas to eligible facilities and those will be distributed as planned, Hauptli said. The $253 million will come from a $400 million to $450 million account used for discretionary project funding, he said.
U.S. Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who is the ranking member of the chamber’s appropriations transportation subcommittee, said on the Senate floor April 25 that the AIP program had sufficient funds to support the transfer.
“This is a common-sense solution,” said Collins, a co- sponsor of the measure. “It doesn’t involve additional money. It is a one-time shift of unused moneys. It does not make a permanent change in the Airport Improvement Program.”
Forty-one senators signed a letter today to Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking that they also use shifted money to keep operating 149 airport towers operated by private contractors. The towers are scheduled to close June 15.
While the $253 million FAA can now transfer within its accounts would cover the cost of keeping the towers open, the new law didn’t explicitly address those facilities. The FAA hasn’t said what it plans to do with the towers.
“Congressional intent is clear: the FAA should prevent the slated closure of 149 contract towers,” the senators said the letter.
The letter campaign was organized by Senators Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, and Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, according to statements from their offices.
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