Why aviation faces a double whammy as shutdown looms

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is facing down a dual threat as Congress careens toward a government shutdown, with potential consequences for an air travel industry already struggling with waves of delays.

On top of losing funding, the law establishing the agency’s authority is set to lapse without renewal. Both face a Saturday deadline.

After passing the House earlier this year, the agency’s renewal failed to proceed in the Senate. Its reauthorization is now tied up in the Senate’s efforts to advance a continuing resolution, or stopgap funding measure, to avert a government shutdown. 

However, with just days to go, a final deal on the continuing resolution — and in turn a path forward for the FAA’s reauthorization — remains elusive.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned Thursday of the threats posed to the agency by both a potential shutdown and a lapse in authorization. 

“It’s not just the shutdown: FAA is operating on a 5-year authorization that also expires this Sunday, unless Congress acts,” Buttigieg said in a post on X. “This chaos among House Republicans must end so that Congress can do its job.”

More than 13,000 air traffic controllers and 50,000 transportation security officers are expected to continue working throughout a potential shutdown without pay, according to the White House.

While such aviation-related federal workers would largely be exempted from the shutdown, the Biden administration warned that previous shutdowns have led to significant delays and longer wait times for travelers at airports.

During the 35-day shutdown from December 2018 to January 2019, absenteeism rose among air traffic controllers, which led to major delays and ultimately played a significant role in ending the shutdown, according to The Washington Post.

“I want you to imagine the pressure that a controller is already under every time they take their position at work,” Buttigieg said at a press conference Wednesday. “And then imagine the added stress of coming to that job from a household with a family that can no longer count on that paycheck. That is the consequence of a shutdown.”

A failure to renew the FAA’s authorization would also mean that the agency could not collect revenue, effectively giving airlines a “tax holiday” that would likely be “unrecoverable,” Buttigieg added. 

During the brief lapse of the FAA’s authorization in 2011, the agency lost more than $350 million, according to The New York Times.

Buttigieg also warned that a shutdown could stymie progress the administration has made to reduce air traffic controller shortages. The FAA would have to stop training new air traffic controllers and furlough another 1,000 who are already in the training pipeline, he said.

“The complexity of the hiring and training process means even a shutdown lasting a few days could mean we will not meet our staffing and hiring targets next year,” Buttigieg added.

A June report from the Transportation Department Office of Inspector General found that 77 percent of critical air traffic control facilities were staffed below the threshold required by the FAA.

Rich Santa, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, urged senators Wednesday to move forward with the continuing resolution attached to the FAA reauthorization and prevent a shutdown.

“Shutting down the FAA for any length of time is deeply problematic for both aviation safety professionals and the National Airspace System (NAS),” Santa said. “The FAA, its frontline workforce, and the flying public can ill afford another disruptive shutdown, regardless of its duration.”

Tags air traffic control continuing resolution Department of Transportation FAA FAA reauthorization Federal Aviation Administration government shutdown Pete Buttigieg