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Gov’t Asks FAA Safety Inspectors for a Big No-Interest Loan

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The latest budget blockade in Congress is forcing inspectors responsible for maintaining safety at the nation’s airports to work for free, and charge work expenses to their personal credit cards, raising the possibility that soon many of America’s biggest airports will have no federal safety inspections at all.

“I’m at a loss for adjectives to describe how tragic, horrible and idiotic this is,” says Chris Oswald, vice president safety and technical operations for the Airports Council International.

About 40 inspectors are responsible for checking everything safety-related at the nation’s busiest airports. They inspect everything from cracks in the runway to whether safety lights are working and fire trucks are ready to go, says Dr. Mike Hynes founder and owner of Hynes Aviation Services, an aviation safety consulting company.

The inspectors are among the 4,000 F.A.A. employees furloughed by the budget impasse. But the agency’s leaders have asked the inspectors to continue working without pay.

To work, the inspectors must travel. Most inspectors visit five different airports every two weeks, Hynes says, wracking up thousands of dollars a week in hotel bills, food expenses and airline ticket costs. Usually those expenses are paid by a government credit card.

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But the budget mess leaves the F.A.A. without functioning credit cards. So the agency has asked the inspectors to charge their expenses to their own personal cards, to be reimbursed later.

That may work for a while, Oswald says. But the F.A.A.’s budget crisis cannot be resolved for at least another six weeks, when Congress returns from its summer recess. Will safety inspectors really be able to afford to continue wracking up such big credit card bills for such a long time?

Probably not, say people familiar with the work. Soon, that may mean that the nation’s largest airports will be operating with no federal safety inspection at all. The inspectors’ union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, did not return calls seeking comment, nor did the F.A.A.

“They don’t have the resources to pay for all that. And if they exceed their credit limit, the government will not pay them for late fees and interest charges,” Hynes says. “If I was the employee, I would just say I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”

Having no federal inspectors on hand may not lead to airport safety problems immediately.

“No one needs to worry about safety,” Ray LaHood, the Obama administration’s transportation secretary, said Tuesday in a conference call to reporters.

But in the long term, losing the inspectors could cause problems, aviation safety experts worry.

“Are we going to have a disaster tomorrow? No.” Hynes says. “But if this goes on any length of time, yes.”

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The Federal Aviation Administration has been operating on a temporary budget for over three years because Congress has consistently failed to pass a permanent one. Instead, the agency has been running on what are called “continuing resolutions,” which allow the agency to continue operating by extending its old budget.

The last continuing resolution expired Tuesday. With that expiration, the F.A.A. lost its ability to charge the 7.5% tax on airline tickets, which funds most of the agency’s functions. That means the agency is losing $200 million a week, according to the American Association of Airport Executives, money that is normally used to pay safety inspectors and improve airport facilities.

The agency also lost its ability to write checks or pay its credit card bills. Which leaves the inspectors to pay their own expenses.

“We just want something passed,” says Sean Broderick, spokesman for the airport executives association. “The system needs to keep operating.”

There are many different explanations for the impasse. One immediate reason appears to be a disagreement over an F.A.A. program that subsidizes airlines for flying into rural airports.

But that may be simply a political maneuver for Republicans to deal with a deeper problem: A fight over new rules passed by the National Mediation Board that would allow airline and railroad workers to unionize by a simple majority vote. Currently, people who don’t vote in such elections are counted as “no”s, making it more difficult for workers to unionize. Republican John Mica of Florida attached a rider to the F.A.A. budget bill that would reverse mediation board’s ruling. The rural airports maneuver is “just a tool to try to motivate some action to get this resolved,” Mica told Aviation Week.

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Image: Janet, via Flickr.com

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