As many as 639 employees at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township will be furloughed from their jobs today after federal lawmakers failed to avert a shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The shutdown occurred after legislators were unable to resolve a partisan dispute over an extension of the FAA's operating authority, which expired at midnight Friday.
As a result, nearly 4,000 FAA employees nationwide will be temporarily out of work and federal airline ticket taxes will be suspended.
The U.S. Senate failed to extend the FAA's oper ating authority Friday afternoon because of disagreement over amendments placed on the bill by the House of Representatives. House Republicans added a provision eliminating about $16.5 million in subsidies for airline service to 13 rural communities in 10 states. None of the affected communities is located in New Jersey.
Senate Democrats refused to accept the House bill with the cuts, and Republican senators refused to accept a Democratic bill without it. Lawmakers then adjourned for the weekend.
In addition to the dispute on rural air service subsidies, there was a standoff between the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate over a provision in the legislation that would make it more difficult for airline and railroad workers to unionize.
Long-term funding authority for the FAA expired in 2007. Unable to agree on new longterm funding legislation for the agency, Congress has kept the FAA operating through a series of 20 short-term extension bills. The extensions had been routine until this week.
The lack of an extension puts 651 FAA employees in New Jersey out of work, including the 639 at the Hughes center, the FAA's technology and research center.
Many of the local furloughed employees were working on research and implementation of the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday.
The FAA would not allow employees at the Tech Center to be interviewed Friday.
Beyond the furloughed employees, the lack of an extension will not affect operations at area airports, although it will mean the federal government cannot collect about $200 million a week in ticket taxes that go into a trust fund that pays for FAA programs.
As a result, airline passengers could see a savings on airfares, but the situation is complicated. Federal taxes on a $300 round-trip airfare are about $61, but about half that are airport and security fees that will continue to be collected, the Air Transport Association said.
However, U.S. Airways was already raising its fares, and other airlines may try to reap a windfall profit from the tax holiday as well.
Passengers who bought their tickets before the shutdown, but who travel during the shutdown, may be due a refund, Treasury Department spokeswoman Sandra Salstrom said. That's because it's not clear whether the government can keep taxes for travel that takes place during a period when the government doesn't have authority to collect taxes, she said.
Likewise, it's not clear if passengers who buy tickets after midnight with no taxes included will wind up owing taxes if their travel takes place after FAA's operating authority is restored, she said.
The IRS will probably issue guidance later to clarify the situation, Salstrom said.
The shutdown also freezes $762,000 to local airports for specific projects funded through the federal agency.
The FAA - which has a $16 billion budget - was scheduled to give $171,000 to the South Jersey Transportation Authority for work at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township. The FAA said payments also were scheduled for the following airports:
■ $127,500 each for airports in Hammonton, Lakewood, Ocean City and Toms River
■ $58,000 for Millville Airport
■ $23,000 for Cape May Airport Statewide, $44.7 million in FAA funding for projects was delayed.
The suspension affects new projects and payments for current ones that had yet to be made.
Air traffic controllers are considered essential and thus are not affected by the suspension. Local airport officials said that means flights would not be affected.
"As long as the air traffic controllers are in place, then no, we don't expect any impact," SJTA spokeswoman Sharon Gordon said.
Atlantic City International is ready to start construction on a new fire station building - which will receive FAA funding - but the SJTA is awaiting clearance from the FAA to move forward, Gordon said. If the stalemate over extending the funding is prolonged, the project could be in jeopardy, she said.
The Delaware River and Bay Authority operates the airports in Lower Township and Millville. DRBA spokesman Jim Salmon said the authority planned to apply for grants for work at the two airports but the applications are now frozen.
The DRBA is seeking $1.1 million for the Cape May Airport to conduct an environmental study to rehabilitate a runway and clear visible obstructions - items such as trees, he said. The authority also is seeking a $450,000 grant for work at the Millville Airport to clear a visible obstruction, Salmon said.
Salmon said the suspension could be a mere "hiccup" in the process provided the situation is soon remedied. "They're still on the radar screen," he said. "The viability and necessity of the projects are still there. It's just not something that can be remedied right now."
U.S. Rep Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, called the Senate's failure to vote "extremely irresponsible and indefensible." In a statement, he said the furlough will cause an unnecessary and avoidable hardship for the employees.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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