Passenger Devices Rule Delayed by Shutdown Due Soon: FAA

A rule expanding airline passengers’ ability to use electronic devices on flights, delayed by the partial government shutdown, will be unveiled “very quickly,” the U.S. chief aviation regulator said.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is still recovering from the 16-day funding dispute and is focused on safety priorities before turning its attention to an advisory panel’s suggestions for use of iPods, Kindles and other devices on aircraft, Administrator Michael Huerta said today.

Huerta, in his first public comments since the agency was partially shuttered, said aviation leaders need to identify the government’s financial priorities -- and what should be cut -- to avoid future funding crises that are threatening the U.S. industry’s leadership position worldwide.

“Short-term, stop-gap funding is no way to run a government or an aviation system,” Huerta said in a speech at the Aero Club of Washington and attended by airline officials, union groups and others in the industry.

The FAA faces hundreds of millions of dollars in additional cuts next year if no action is taken by Congress, he said.

The FAA furloughed one-third of its 46,000 employees on Oct. 1 after an impasse in Congress and the White House over the 2010 Affordable Care Act and the debt ceiling forced a partial government shutdown.

Impacts Continue

The standoff ended when divided Republicans agreed to lift the debt ceiling and resume government spending one day before U.S. borrowing authority was scheduled to lapse.

Hundreds of plane sales by companies including Airbus SAS and individuals stalled during the shutdown because the FAA’s aircraft-registration office was closed.

Furloughing FAA workers also delayed release of proposed new standards for when passengers may text and e-mail during airline flights.

The agency’s advisory panel recommended allowing use of e-books, sending e-mail and browsing websites throughout flights, including during landing and takeoff, a person familiar with the report said.

Mobile-phone calls and texting would remain forbidden. They are banned separately by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Use of nearly all electronic devices are currently prohibited below 10,000 feet.

“We do have the report,” Huerta told reporters after his speech in Washington. “Naturally with the shutdown we lost a lot of momentum on that.”

Industry Talks

In his speech, Huerta said he was aware of talks by aviation industry and labor leaders on whether divisions of the agency should be reorganized or put under semi-private control.

“One thing I think is vitally important is for the aviation industry to start having serious conversations about the structure of our aviation system, as well as the way to fund it,” he said.

The agency, which has a $5 billion backlog in deferred maintenance for equipment in the air-traffic system, must prioritize in order to continue providing services, he said.

All 3,000 of the agency’s aviation-safety inspectors weren’t working when parts of the government closed Oct. 1. The FAA brought about 800 airline and aircraft manufacturer inspectors back to work starting Oct. 7.

Air-traffic controllers and employees who maintained navigation equipment and some critical computer systems remained on the job.

Cutting Costs

The shutdown was just the latest budget crisis at FAA. The aviation agency had to trim $637 million from its $16 billion budget by Sept. 30 under across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. Employees, including the agency’s 15,000 controllers, were initially forced to take one unpaid day off every two weeks, leaving about 10 percent fewer workers on duty.

The agency proposed closing 149 towers operated by private companies at airports with lower flight volumes.

After flights were delayed and airports said their operations would be imperiled, Congress voted in April to move $253 million from airport construction grant money to end furloughs and fund the towers.

In 2011, the FAA partially shut down for two weeks after Congress couldn’t agree on legislation authorizing agency operations. About 4,000 employees were furloughed and 70,000 workers in construction and related jobs were idled.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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