FAA money restored but Jackson-Evers projects may be in jeopardy

August 5, 2011

Economic Development, Politics

Late Friday afternoon action by the U.S. Senate and President Obama got the Federal Aviation Administration back in business but the big dollars lost in airline fees could hurt long-range projects planned by Jackson-Evers International Airport and other airports throughout Mississippi.

At Jackson-Evers 10 FAA workers will return to work Monday after a two-week furlough caused by the refusal of House Republicans to reauthorize FAA spending. Nationwide, Friday’s re-authorization will return 4,000 FAA workers to their jobs as well as 70,000 construction workers who had been working on air traffic control projects, including at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

The Republican House decision to recess without reauthorizing the funding resulted from the refusal of Democratic House members to go along with what they viewed as anti-union measures the GOP had put into the re-authorization bill.

The bill is yet another short-term extension of funding and puts off a renewal of congressional fighting until the extension expires on Sept. 12. FAA funding has already had 21 extensions in recent times, said Dirk Vanderleest, CEO of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority.

“When Congress comes back from recess they will have to deal with this issue,” he said.

Work on an overlay for the east runway at Jackson-Evers was spared a shutdown because money for the work had already been received, he added.

What’s worrying Vanderleest is the estimated $420 million in airline ticket fees that will not be available to the FAA for funding airport improvements around the country. The shutdown cost the FAA an estimated $30 million a day in fees from the airlines, which pocketed the ticket surcharge money as an unexpected bonanza.

“The FAA has not figure out what impact it will have on airports for the next several years,” Vanderleest said of the lost money.

Jackson-Evers had been counting on receiving about $86 million for projects from 2012 through 2014, of which about 68 percent is to be funded from the FAA’s Airport Improvement Fund, the fund depleted by the shutdown.

An access-control project that includes cameras, baggage screening and other security measures is also part of the long range work.

The short-term extensions are creating a planning nightmare, Vanderleest said. What is needed, he said, is a five-year extension to enable the “FAA, airports, airlines and the aviation community to plan accordingly.”

The let up in the stop-and-go funding may only be for a few weeks, but it still comes as a relief to Vanderleest.

“We were doing some worse-case scenarios,” he said. “If Congress were not able to come to some compromise, this thing could have played out to the end of Labor Day. It would have equated to $1 billion that would have not been collected.”

That, Vanderleest said, would have had “a significant impact” on Jackson-Evers International Airport and Hawkins Field, along with other airports in Mississippi. It would have been huge.”

What does Congress do Sept. 12?

“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said.

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