Politicians couldn’t bear the thought of their own flights getting delayed during next week’s recess, but we still have to ask why go through the pain of flight delays, job furloughs, and political jarring just to reallocate the appropriate funds one week later?
The U.S. House passed legislation to end air-traffic controller furloughs, joining the Senate in letting the Federal Aviation Administration work around across- the-board budget cuts to end days of flight delays.
The House cleared the measure 361-41 today after the Senate unanimously passed the bipartisan legislation last night just before a week-long congressional recess. The measure allows the FAA to move as much as $253 million within its budget to end furloughs. President Barack Obama will sign the legislation, spokesman Jay Carney said.
Flight delays since rolling furloughs of 10 percent of U.S. controllers began April 21 have become the focus of debate on the mandatory spending cuts known as sequestration and led to calls from airlines and airport operators for a solution.
“The administration and the FAA has refused for months to provide us with a plan, to work with the airline industry to figure out how this could be implemented without all this pain to the traveling public and the economy,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, who said he was voting for the plan. “I believe this has been mismanaged. I believe this will force them to stop these needless furloughs.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said the measure allows the FAA enough flexibility to also avert the planned June 15 closing of 149 small-airport control towers operated by agency contractors.
The measure will end furloughs for 11,000 FAA safety inspectors, technicians and others who perform essential services in the aviation system, Kori Blalock Keller, a spokeswoman for the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union, said in an interview.
The union had been assured by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta that its members wouldn’t be furloughed if the bill was passed, Keller said.
“We obviously appreciate the fix, but we are looking at the long term,” she said. “We need a long-term fix to sequestration. This is by no means the end.”
House Democrats decried the move to single out the FAA for budget relief while not changing across-the-board cuts in programs geared toward the poor, such as Head Start.
“We ought not to be mitigating the sequester’s effect on just one segment when children, the sick, our military and many other groups who will be impacted by this irresponsible policy will be left unhelped,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said.
The House used expedited procedures requiring a two-thirds vote to pass the measure.
Under sequestration, the FAA had to pare $637 million from its budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The efforts in Congress to free more money for the FAA come as other government programs are losing money under the automatic budget cuts.
“This measure ensures that air traffic controllers can return to work, and importantly return efficiency to the national air space,” Nicholas Calio, chief executive officer of Airlines for America, the Washington-based trade group representing the largest U.S. carriers, said in a statement.
Of about 3,000 flight delays reported April 24, at least 863 stemmed from staffing reductions in airport towers and regional facilities, the FAA said yesterday in a statement. Among the cities affected were New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Dallas.
Huerta on April 24 told House appropriators he had no choice in going ahead with the furloughs of controllers under government-wide budget cuts and said there would be “no effect on safety” for airline passengers.
The FAA administrator testified that he needed to look at controller salaries. Seventy percent of the agency’s operating budget is in payroll, and 40 percent of that amount goes to air traffic controllers, he said.
Asked whether he could concentrate furloughs at less- congested airports, Huerta said the FAA has to avoid picking “winners and losers” among airlines by sparing larger hubs.
With assistance from Mary Jane Credeur in Atlanta , Kathleen Hunter, Peter Cook, Ellen Uchimiya and Bernard Kohn in Washington and Mary Schlangenstein and Ed Dufner in Dallas. Editors: Bernard Kohn, Jodi Schneider
To contact the reporters on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at [email protected]; Alan Levin in Washington at [email protected] To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at [email protected]