Wednesday, August 3, 2011

FAA shakeup resonates at Freidman

Furlough cuts off communications


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Disagreement in Washington, D.C. over funding the Federal Aviation Administration is causing uncertainty at Friedman Memorial Airport about current operations and the state of the airport's replacement.

"We are in a real pickle," said Rick Baird, manager of the Friedman Memorial Airport at a county meeting on Tuesday.

A standoff between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratic-controlled Senate over a long-term funding provision that would make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize caused the FAA's operating authority to expire at midnight on July 22. As a result, the agency was shut down and nonessential personnel were furloughed.

Baird said he has been unable to contact anyone at the FAA since the furlough began, as all of his normal contacts were among the 4,000 employees sent home.

"Airport managers should be communicating weekly with regulatory agencies," Baird said.

But when he attempts to call Cayla Morgan, the public information officer in Seattle, he receives what he describes as a "very polite" message explaining that she will not be in the office until the furlough ends.

"I guess if we have an emergency, we'll find out who to talk to," Baird said. "But right now, there's no one there."

Calls by the Idaho Mountain Express to Morgan and to FAA spokesman Mike Fergus were not returned due to the furloughs.

The furlough comes at an inopportune time for the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority, which is trying to respond to an email statement from the FAA saying that a draft environmental impact statement for the replacement airport has been delayed again.

The statement says the report has been delayed due to "issues related to wildlife and the need for further review of the financial feasibility of the project."

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County Commissioner and authority Board Member Tom Bowman said it's impossible to say what that means for the replacement airport, as no one at the FAA is available to discuss the matter further.

"Certainly, something is going on," he said. "The email is enough to give anybody pause as to why they would delay the EIS."

Baird said in an interview that there is absolutely no work being done on the EIS while Morgan is on furlough, and the airport authority cannot even help move the process forward in the meantime.

"There's nobody to talk to about whether we need to do additional work," Baird said. "We just can't find out what the release really means."

As of press time, the American Association for Airport Executives, a national lobbyist group, reported that lawmakers were making a last-ditch effort to resolve the standstill before Congress takes a six-week break later this week.

If no deal can be passed, it could be more than six weeks before Congress revisits the issue. In the meantime, a 7.5 percent ticket tax and a 4.3 cents-per-gallon fuel tax are not being collected while the agency is shut down, which costs the Airport and Airways Trust Fund $200 million a week in lost revenue nationwide.

Total impacts of an eight- to nine-week shutdown could result in lost revenue of about $1.7 billion, money that goes to fund construction projects at airports across the country, including Freidman.

Baird said it's impossible to quantify how much funding Friedman could lose due to the shutdown. But no matter how soon the issue is resolved, he said, it will almost certainly mean another delay in the replacement airport EIS.

"It's going to take a lot of time for them to get back in the saddle," he said.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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