Workers make adjustments on a flight status video display as test destinations are displayed in the new passenger terminal at Paine Field, Jan. 23, 2019, in Everett. Alaska Airlines originally planned to begin service from Paine Field in early February, but last month’s shutdown delayed the start of service until at least early March. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Workers make adjustments on a flight status video display as test destinations are displayed in the new passenger terminal at Paine Field, Jan. 23, 2019, in Everett. Alaska Airlines originally planned to begin service from Paine Field in early February, but last month’s shutdown delayed the start of service until at least early March. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Editorial: FAA, U.S. aviation needn’t be hostage in shutdowns

Legislation in Congress would keep air traffic controllers and others on the job — and paid.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Although insisting that he doesn’t like the bipartisan budget agreement on border security, President Trump suggested Wednesday that he would sign the deal and head off resumption of the record 35-day partial government shutdown that ended late last month.

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In the meantime, Congress should pursue legislation that would remove such shutdowns — and the games of “Chicken” that proceed them — from the satchel of deal-making tactics used by both Congress and the White House. Instead, count on more games of “Kicking the Can Down the Road.”

Leaders of both parties have endorsed legislation that would automatically fund the government at existing levels when lawmakers miss budget deadlines. One intriguing amendment offered would deny pay to members of Congress until there’s a budget deal. But it’s anybody’s guess as to whether Congress or the president are serious about denying themselves the ability to use the threat of shutdowns to get what they want.

But another piece of legislation — more narrowly focused but with the potential to relieve one of the more dangerous and damaging aspects of such shutdowns — has been offered by Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Washington, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon. The legislation, the Aviation Funding Stability Act, would keep the Federal Aviation Administration and its 17,000 employees, in particular air traffic controllers and FAA inspectors and others, on the job and, importantly, paid, even during a shutdown elsewhere in the government.

And it wouldn’t require an appropriation or continuing resolution from Congress. The FAA already has a pot of money from which it can draw, one that air travelers pay into with every ticket they buy. The FAA’s Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which collects revenue for taxes on passengers’ tickets, aviation fuel, cargo and other sources, generates enough to keep FAA programs operating during a shutdown. The legislation would authorize the FAA to use that fund in the event of a suspension of general funding.

The legislation isn’t a complete fix for commercial aviation. It wouldn’t assure uninterrupted payment for Transportation Security Administration agents, because they, like the U.S. Coast Guard, are funded through the Department of Homeland Security.

With the exception of TSA agents, the legislation would allow for the nation’s commercial aviation system, which contributes $1.5 trillion to the economy and supports more than 11 million jobs, to continue without interruption.

Here’s what happened to that system during the shutdown:

Air traffic controls continued to work, and many worked overtime, but like the total of 180,000 government workers, they went without pay and without any certainty as to when the shutdown would end, adding significantly to an already stressful and mentally demanding job.

Larsen noted during a meeting last week with the editorial board that the average air traffic controller is in her or his 50s, requiring the FAA to begin work to hire and train new controllers. The shutdown hasn’t convinced current controllers to stay in the job much longer and can only discourage some from considering air traffic control as a career.

The work of FAA inspectors to approve new aircraft, aviation products and infrastructure was suspended, which had the potential to threaten production for Boeing and other aerospace manufacturers, delayed the start of new routes for airlines and — for those expecting final boarding calls for their flights last week — has now delayed the start of regular commercial service at Paine Field until at least early March.

The shutdown also delayed work to implement last year’s FAA reauthorization and related improvements, streamlining of the FAA’s certification process and the release of Airport Improvement Program grants, including $12.6 billion in airport improvements in Washington state alone, Larsen said during a hearing Wednesday before the Aviation Subcommittee, for which he is now chairman.

As the new chairman of the subcommittee, which oversees the FAA, Larsen told the editorial board he hoped to focus on aviation safety, innovation, competitiveness and the air travel experience of passengers.

But continuity of funding for the FAA now takes precedence.

“The partial government shutdown unnecessarily hurt American families and jeopardized the safety of the largest, busiest and most complex airspace system in the world,” Larsen said Wednesday.

Regardless of whether shutdowns remain as a deal-making option for Congress and the White House, the FAA and the bulk of the nation’s commercial aviation system needn’t be one of the hostages.

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