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Can a partial shutdown of FAA be avoided?

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Don’t hold your breath waiting for an FAA reauthorization bill including major air traffic control (ATC) reform—namely, the separation of ATC operations from FAA—to pass the US Congress in the next couple of months. At this point, avoiding a costly partial shutdown of FAA this autumn is the best one can realistically hope for—and a disruption to FAA operations resulting from either the agency’s authorization expiring or a wider government shutdown is absolutely possible in the coming months.

As always, FAA is likely to get lost in the mix as the US federal government hurtles toward a potential fiscal crisis in late September/early October. Here are three key deadlines to keep in mind: 1) FAA’s authorization expires Sept. 30. 2) The US federal government’s funding authority runs out Sept. 30. 3) The US federal government is expected to hit its debt ceiling in early October.

The third of these is the most pressing, with potentially wide-ranging global economic consequences if the debt ceiling is actually breached, and this issue will likely start to dominate Washington DC by next month, eclipsing all other issues. There is no sign that the Congress and the White House have devised a workable plan to pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling, a concerning development given how little time is left on the Congressional calendar in the remainder of the US government’s fiscal year ending Sept. 30. (Congress is on a month-long recess now, and the House of Representatives only has 12 in-session days scheduled between now and the end of September.)

That also leaves little time to pass a new budget for the next fiscal year starting Oct. 1. Funding is not authorized for any federal department or agency beyond Sept. 30. A partial shutdown of the entire government, sending home all non-essential workers, on Oct. 1 is a very real possibility, especially since President Donald Trump tweeted in the spring that “our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September.”

If Trump wants a shutdown, there will be one. 

In the event of a government shutdown, air traffic controllers would be considered essential workers and kept on the job, but many FAA and Department of Transportation (DOT) functions would be put on hold.

So before Congress and the White House get to FAA reauthorization, there have to be deals negotiated on the debt ceiling and the federal budget. Those hoping for House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster’s ATC reform planbacked by Trump—to be passed into law this year are likely to be disappointed. The House has yet to vote on Shuster’s plan—and until Shuster shows that it can actually pass the full House, the Senate will not be interested. The Senate version of FAA reauthorization, which has also not yet had a floor vote, does not include spinning off ATC functions.

“There’s just a lot of controversy around the change,” Southwest Airlines chairman and CEO Gary Kelly, a strong supporter of creating an independent, non-profit NAV Canada-like entity to manage US ATC, recently said. “I’d be the first to recognize that … There’s just a lot of work to do. I don’t know that there’s a vote scheduled in the House, so they might not have the votes [to pass the legislation] … If we don’t accelerate the pace [of ATC modernization] then we will face a real capacity crisis in the air. The airspace is getting less and less efficient. Air traffic controllers are doing a great job of keeping things safe, but they do that by slowing the system down.”

Noting the White House, a growing contingent in the House and most US airlines (Delta Air Lines is a notable holdout) support ATC reform, Kelly said there is “momentum” building to spin off ATC from FAA. But there simply isn’t time before Sept. 30 for the House and Senate FAA bills to pass, a compromise to be negotiated between the disparate pieces of legislation and the full Congress to pass an FAA reauthorization bill to send to Trump’s desk for signature into law. Especially if you take into account the wider budget and debt ceiling issues hanging over Congress.

That means a mad scramble to pass some kind of short-term FAA extension to avoid an embarrassing partial shutdown of FAA like the one that happened in 2011, when around 4,000 FAA employees were placed on furlough and construction projects at airports across the US halted. Again, controllers would remain on the job, but an expiration of FAA’s authorization would no doubt be disruptive for the US airline industry.

Could there be some kind of grand fiscal compromise that includes a new federal budget, raising the debt ceiling and major ATC reform? Possible—Trump claims to like making big deals—but this Congress and this White House have so far not demonstrated a great deal of acumen in negotiating and passing significant legislation. So enjoy August, because a crisis atmosphere is coming to Washington DC in September and FAA operations could be in flux throughout the fall.

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