Nothing like a potential flight delay to focus the congressional mind.
With only hours to go before leaving Washington, D.C., for their districts, representatives Friday approved a Senate bill that will allow the Federal Aviation Administration to shuffle money into the account that funds air traffic control. For want of $200 million, the agency had instituted controller furloughs that were disrupting operations at major airports, including Reagan National Airport right there on the Potomac River.
The furloughs did not disrupt operations at Spokane International Airport – snow in Denver did – but the legislation apparently provides funds that will keep the tower at Felts Field and 148 other community airports open beyond June 15. Apparently, because the bill language is vague about tower funding, but enough money has been reallocated to assume the towers are safe. For the time being.
Whether the main tower at Spokane International Airport will remain open 24/7 after September is also unclear, although the money is available.
The airport board, which is responsible for Felts, filed suit against the FAA, claiming the tower closures would jeopardize public safety. More than 20 other airports or interested parties have joined in the litigation.
Because of the uncertainty regarding how the FAA will redistribute its money, SIA Director Larry Krauter says the litigation will continue. The best case, he says, is a settlement that removes any doubt about community tower funding. Again, for the time being.
The tower contracts, which are let on a regional basis, expire next year. The pending expiration should occasion a reassessment of which towers are worthy of full FAA funding, and which will have to rely in whole or in part on community support.
Also next year, Congress will have to reauthorize the FAA itself, which will entail a broader reassessment of that agency’s role. The FAA was pretty well beat up this week. Besides the furlough fracas, the agency has been criticized for relying on Boeing Co. test results on batteries whose failure grounded the 787 for months.
The successor to departing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will have some explaining to do.
The furlough problem, the result of the budget sequester that cut funding across all government agencies, was resolved in characteristic congressional fashion: borrowing from tomorrow. The money for operations was taken out of another fund intended to support projects that improve air travel. SIA is seeking money for a new fire station and realignment of a taxiway.
Some of those projects will have to wait.
So, too, will thousands of seniors who are losing Meals on Wheels benefits, and children their access to Head Start.
It’s tough when you have to skip a meal. But it’s really tough if you have to wait an hour for your flight to Des Moines.