GOP lawmakers spar with FAA over migrants housed at airports

Lawmakers' questions about the safety of Boeing's airplanes had to compete Tuesday with GOP complaints about airports that house migrants.

Republicans have groused for months about unhoused migrants being kept in a shuttle bus facility at Chicago O'Hare International Airport and have prodded the Federal Aviation Administration to use its power to force airports to stop the practice before it spreads. They have argued that FAA approval is required before airport facilities can be used for things unrelated to aviation, while the agency has insisted that it doesn't have total control over how airports use their ground space.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) pressed the migrant issue during a House hearing on aviation safety, which was mostly devoted to questions about a spate of manufacturing flaws at Boeing and the FAA's ability to ensure the safety of the flying public.

It's "abundantly clear that airports are restricted in their ability to use their facilities for non-aeronautical purposes," Perry said, citing an FAA airport compliance manual. He added that if airports are going to do so, "they must receive FAA approval."

FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker did not directly address whether the agency considers housing migrants a "non-aeronautical purpose." The agency declined to elaborate about the matter.

Whitaker said he's aware of only one migrant housing request that the FAA received and approved last year, allowing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to provide migrants with space at a warehouse adjacent to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Beyond that, Whitaker said, "to my knowledge there are no FAA locations that house migrants." He said he doesn't consider airports "an FAA location."

The FAA previously told POLITICO that because the agency doesn’t operate airports, a municipality or state government “may work with an airport to seek permission from the FAA to allow temporary use of airport property for non-aviation purposes.” It did not elaborate about what these non-aviation purposes could be.

“In cases where FAA approval to do this is required, a number of objective factors are considered, including safety and whether the property might be needed for aviation-related purposes,” the agency said in December. “If approved, the requestor is responsible for all costs associated with the operation, including security.”

Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) also pressed Whitaker on the issue, suggesting that the FAA should create an approval process for housing migrants, as well as detailing how many airports are involved in housing migrants.

“We need a policy from the FAA dealing with these requests and ensuring that the FAA is part of the process in determining if, where and when this is going to be done,” Van Drew said.

In response to questions from Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) — who tried to clear up the FAA’s role — Whitaker affirmed that the agency only has oversight of air operations, not necessarily what ground facilities are used for.

Last month, GOP members of the Senate Commerce Committee, including top committee Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, sent a letter to Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson asking whether resources at O'Hare are being diverted to house migrants.

“[T]here are several obligations that come with receiving … federal assistance, but the ‘[m]ost important is that the airport and its facilities must be available for public use as an airport,’” the senators said.