NEW YORK (AP) — Airport safety inspectors nationwide are working without pay and shouldering travel expenses themselves as the Federal Aviation Administration's budget crisis enters a second week, transportation officials said Monday.
The 40 inspectors are in charge of regular checks covering runways, navigation aids and other systems at dozens of airports and airlines. A typical inspector may travel to five airports in a two-week period and rack up thousands of dollars in hotel and airline tickets, FAA administrator Randy Babbitt said Monday.
"We're asking for them to put the balance on their credit cards," Babbitt said Monday. "It's not right to ask them to do that, it's just not."
The inspectors are among 4,000 FAA employees furloughed on July 22 after Congress refused to authorize FAA spending in a dispute over union provisions and subsidies to support airline service at smaller airports. The freeze has forced work to stop on about $2.5 billion in construction projects forced the layoffs of thousands of construction workers, the FAA says.
On Monday Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited New York's La Guardia airport, where work has stopped on a $6 million project to demolish an old control tower. The old tower blocks the view from a new control tower built a few hundred feet away.
LaHood said there was little progress on resolving the standoff over the weekend, but he hoped Congress would turn its attention to the FAA budget after reaching a tentative deal on Sunday to raise the nation's debt ceiling.
"Debt and deficit was resolved yesterday afternoon. Now Congress needs to focus on putting FAA workers and construction workers back to work," LaHood said. "Do not hold people's jobs hostage for things that can be worked out."
In addition to the furloughs and halted projects, the shutdown means the FAA cannot collect the $30 million a day normally imposed on airline tickets through federal taxes. But there has been no benefit to airline passengers because airlines have raised their fares by the same amount.
Over the weekend several lawmakers sent letters to airline trade groups and CEOs asking them to roll back the increases. Airlines also hiked their prices during similar tax holidays in 1996 and 1997, and they were allowed to keep the money afterward.
At LaGuardia, the shutdown has halted a $10 million project to install security barriers in front of LaGuardia's main terminal, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the airport.
At nearby John F. Kennedy Airport, crews have stopped work an $8 million project to rehabilitate Taxiway Y, which connects two of the airfield's four runways.
Babbitt said airport workers would secure construction sites at dozens of halted projects to ensure that equipment and debris do not blow onto runways. Air traffic controllers remained at work.
Furloughed engineering technician Gerard Cook said the shutdown took employees off guard and many families were not prepared to go without paychecks. With a new month beginning, many will be struggling to pay their rent and other bills, he said.
Cook, 40, worked on the new control tower at LaGuardia and is also helping redesign the airspace over New York. He said he worries that Congress members and their constituents take FAA workers for granted.
"People think all government employees just sit behind a desk and push a pencil," said Cook, 40. "They don't realize we're out here in the manholes and the mud and the heat and the bugs, working hard."