There were some tense moments at the Great Bend Municipal Airport over the past couple weeks as the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration threatened jobs and funding to some smaller airports.
The Senate approved legislation Friday ending the shutdown and President Barack Obama signed it into law, clearing the way for thousands of employees to return to work and hundreds of airport construction projects to resume. The bipartisan deal also restored subsidies to a handful of airports that qualify as Essential Air Service facilities.
“We were nervous,” said Martin Miller, GBMA manager. “But, we weren’t on the list. We’re OK. Great Bend wasn’t in the cross hairs this time.” Great Bend is an EAS airport.
Communities targeted for the proposed air service subsidy cuts are Morgantown, W.Va.; Athens, Ga.; Glendive, Mont.; Alamogordo, N.M.; Ely, Nev.; Jamestown, N.Y.; Bradford, Pa.; Hagerstown, Md.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Johnstown, Pa.; Franklin/Oil City, Pa.; Lancaster, Pa.; and Jackson, Tenn.
These airports received $1,000-per-passenger subsidies and were within 90 miles of an airline hub, neither of which apply to Great Bend. However, GBMA may struggle with EAS requirement of 10 passengers per day. At Great Bend, there are three passengers who board out-going flights daily, plus those who disembark from an incoming flight.
But, “this is only a temporary extension,” Miller said. The issue will resurface after Sept. 15.
“I am pleased this short-term reauthorization was agreed upon today so American workers can return to their jobs – but there is more work to be done,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. But, “Congress needs to pass a multi-year reauthorization bill to provide long-term stability, improve aviation safety, and make important investments in aviation infrastructure across the country.”
Air transportation in Kansas is essential for business attraction and retention, Moran said. “Airports play a key role in economic development for many communities by enabling businesses to improve customer service and timely delivery of products to market.”
Obama’s signature means nearly 4,000 furloughed FAA employees can return to work as soon as Monday. The shutdown has cost the government about $400 million in uncollected airline ticket taxes and idled thousands of construction workers.
“This impasse was an unnecessary strain on local economies across the country at a time when we can’t allow politics to get in the way of our economic recovery,” Obama said in a statement. “So I’m glad that this stalemate has finally been resolved.”
A bipartisan compromise reached Thursday cleared the way for Senate passage of the House bill, which includes a provision eliminating $16.5 million in air service subsidies to the 13 rural communities. But the bill also includes language that gives Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood the authority to continue subsidized service to the 13 communities if he decides it’s necessary
Republicans had insisted on the subsidy cuts as their price for restoring the FAA to full operation.
Democrats said they expect the administration to effectively waive or negate the cuts, although that won’t happen right away. That’s because the cuts don’t kick in until existing contracts with airlines for the subsidized service expire. The length of those contracts varies by community.
The shutdown began when much of Washington was transfixed by the stalemate over increasing the government’s debt limit. During that time, the FAA furloughed some workers but kept air traffic controllers and most safety inspectors on the job. Forty airport safety inspectors worked without pay, picking up their own travel expenses. Some 70,000 workers on construction-related jobs on airport projects from Palm Springs, Calif., to New York City were idled as the FAA couldn’t pay for the work.
But airline passengers in the busy travel season hardly noticed any changes. Airlines continued to work as normal, but they were no longer authorized to collect federal ticket taxes at a rate of $30 million a day. For a few lucky ticket buyers, prices dropped. But for most, nothing changed because airlines raised their base prices to match the tax.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the deal Thursday afternoon, saying it would put 74,000 transportation and construction workers back to work.
“This agreement does not resolve the important differences that still remain,” said Reid, D-Nev. “But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences, and this agreement will do exactly that.”
Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma won’t attempt to block passage of the bill when it comes up on Friday, spokesman John Hart said. Coburn blocked several attempts by Democrats to pass an extension bill without the subsidy cuts.
The partisan standoff that led to the shutdown began last month when Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, signaled his intention to attach the subsidy cuts to a bill to extend the FAA’s operating authority through mid-September. The agency has been operating under a series of 20 short-term extensions since 2007, when the last long-term FAA funding bill expired.
The FAA falls under the United States Department of Transportation, which administers the EAS program.
According to the DOT, the EAS program was born out of the Airline Deregulation Act, passed in 1978. The goal was to guarantee small communities would continue to receive a minimal level of scheduled air service.
Great Bend became an EAS site in 1978.
USDOT subsidizes 154 airports in the United States and Puerto Rico, and of those, 44 are in Alaska.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.