WASHINGTON - A House committee on Wednesday entertained a bill that would keep the nation's aviation system running should a government shutdown occur in the future.
The bill, the Aviation Funding Ability Act, would shift the money from the $6 billion Aviation Trust Fund to keep the Federal Aviation Administration open when most of the rest of the government shuts down.
The trust fund money, which comes from airport ticket fees and taxes on aviation fuel would be used to pay the more than 45,000 FAA employees, including 14,000 air traffic controllers or those undergoing certification.
"The lights must stay on at the runways across the United States," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee. "I want to assure that the FAA has resources to maintain the aviation system."
While President Trump suggested Tuesday that he did not plan to allow a second shutdown when the deadline for a budget hits Friday, the legislation would not win approval in time to protect the FAA should one occur.
"The FAA is unique," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the full Transportation Committee. "It pays for itself. Why should it be subject to a shutdown?"
About 800,000 federal employees were furloughed or worked without pay during the 35-day shutdown. Those who continued to work included more than 30,000 Transportation Security Administration officers, air traffic controllers and FAA safety inspectors, the latter called back to work without pay as the shutdown continued.
Wednesday's hearing, titled "Putting U.S. Aviation at Risk: The Impact of the Shutdown," underscored the danger to a system that the aviation industry says supports more than $1.5 trillion in economic activity and more than 11 million jobs.
"The system was on the verge of unraveling," said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, whose members worked without pay during the shutdown. "We did see some routine [flight] clearances where mistakes were being made because [controllers] were fatigued. The stress was intense."
Rinaldi said members of his union were bound to be distracted on the job as they worried about "their mortgage, car payments [and] food."
"The 35-day shutdown was just the latest of many instances in which FAA funding, its workforce, and the aviation industry have been held hostage by a political disagreement that has nothing to do with aviation," Rinaldi said in testimony prepared for the hearing.
"The shutdown did introduce more risk into the [aviation] system," said Nicholas E. Calio, president of Airlines for America, which represents the industry. "What we will do is compromise efficiency for safety. Never, never will we put a plane in the air unless it's safe."
Rinaldi gave the committee an example of delays that hampered FAA operations. He said that last week two planes were in the wrong place in Philadelphia, positioned incorrectly on a taxiway. A recently installed device - the ASDE-X Taxiway Arrival Prediction (ATAP) Alerting System - alerted an incoming commercial airliner to abort its landing, flying a few hundred feet over the two planes.
“This system has been installed in six airports,” Rinaldi said. “It was to be installed in 13 major airports by March. That has been delayed until June.”