Congressional investigators say U.S. aviation officials have no legal authority to auction off takeoff and landing slots at airports, a scheme the government devised to try to cut crippling traffic jams at major airports.
The letter from the Government Accountability Office comes amid a legal fight among airlines, airport operators and the Federal Aviation Administration over the Bush administration's plan to curb flight delays by auctioning off slots at airports in the New York City area: Newark, John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia.
The legal opinion is another blow to Bush administration officials hoping to get their air traffic experiment off the ground before leaving office.
“We conclude that FAA may not auction slots under its property disposition authority, user fee authority, or any other authority, and thus also may not retain or use proceeds of any such auctions,” GAO general counsel Gary Kepplinger wrote to lawmakers who had sought the legal opinion.
The GAO's top lawyer concluded that for the first time in 40 years, the FAA claims it may assign airspace as its “property,” but the laws covering the FAA were never written to include such a definition of property.
A Transportation Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A number of House and Senate lawmakers had requested the legal opinion as they sought to stop the FAA's tryout of a slot auction this fall at Newark-Liberty Airport.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters proposed the auction plan after widespread complaints last year about rampant flight delays.
Airlines and airports contend the auction proposal will add new costs and make a mess of day-to-day airport operations.
The government pressed ahead with a trial effort at Newark to auction off just two slots, but an internal FAA agency told them to wait.