US Congress fires back over airport slot auctions

WASHINGTON Wed Oct 15, 2008 3:15pm EDT

WASHINGTON Oct 15 (Reuters) - Leaders in the U.S. Congress requested on Wednesday that the Transportation Department's inspector general investigate the legality of a Bush administration plan to auction takeoff and landing rights at New York-area airports.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, and Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat from Minnesota, said that auctioning "slots" at New York's John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports and Newark airport in New Jersey was a willful violation of federal law.

The fight over the auctions has intensified over the last few months, with the Bush administration saying the slots are federal property and auctions will help alleviate flight congestion and delays in the most lucrative U.S. business travel market.

Last Thursday, the Transportation Department said it would start selling excess slots in January.

But the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm, has found that the Federal Aviation Administration has no legal authority to conduct the auctions. The major U.S. airlines have threatened to sue to stop the sales, as well.

Slots have, through the years, been awarded by the government at no cost to airlines, which consider them assets. However the DOT considers them federal property.

Murray and Oberstar, who lead committees on infrastructure and transportation, requested that the Inspector General report on his findings to legislators and if he finds the administration may be breaking the law that he escalate the matter to the nation's attorney general. (Reporting by Lisa Lambert, additional reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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