Two U.S. senators introduced a bill today to let the Federal Aviation Administration use airport- improvement funds to pay air-traffic controllers, as efforts accelerated to end flight delays caused by forced budget cuts.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said she discussed the move with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who, she said, called it “an effective, workable solution.” Senate leaders may consider legislation ending furloughs of air-traffic controllers as early as today, said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Senator Charles Schumer of New York.
Swelling flight delays since controllers began to be furloughed on April 21 have become the focus of the debate on mandatory spending cuts known as sequestration and fueled calls from airlines and airport operators for a solution.
“Common sense tells all of us that this can’t go on,” Southwest Airlines Co. Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said in an interview today. “It does need a quick resolution.”
Senators may consider the measure sponsored by Collins and Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, or one being drafted by Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who along with South Dakota Republican John Thune met with LaHood yesterday, he said.
The House’s transportation leader said during a press briefing today he’s been “resisting” the Senate’s approach.
“We don’t need to spend one more penny on the FAA,” Representative Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said.
The FAA has the authority it needs to shift funds to limit controller furloughs, Shuster said.
Schumer, the third-ranking Democratic leader, said the timing of a vote and the specifics of legislation are still under discussion.
“We’ll see,” Schumer said when asked whether a vote will occur before lawmakers go on recess next week. “They’re trying to talk to each other,” he said of bill sponsors.
Some senators in both parties, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, have reservations about a specific fix for the FAA furloughs, said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for the Nevada Democrat.
The Collins-Udall measure would also allow the transferred funds to be used to operate 149 privately operated air-traffic control towers at small airports that are scheduled to close June 15.
Thune, in an interview with Bloomberg Television, wouldn’t predict whether a bill would move in that chamber. The highest- ranking Republican on the Senate commerce committee has been working with Rockefeller on a proposal.
“We have put together what we think would be a solution to this problem, at least in the near term,” he said.
The proposal would give the FAA more authority to use other accounts to pay for air-traffic controllers, Thune said. Senators John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, and Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, have proposed similar legislation.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney yesterday said the Obama administration is willing to consider resolving the FAA’s budget woes separately from across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, at other agencies.
“If Congress wants to address specifically the problems caused by the sequester with the FAA, we would be open to looking at that,” Carney told reporters. “But that would be a Band-Aid measure.”
LaHood’s spokeswoman, Sasha Johnson, declined in an interview today to discuss the secretary’s conversations with lawmakers because they were private.
Of about 3,000 flight delays reported yesterday, at least 863 were due to staffing reductions in airport towers and regional facilities, the FAA said today in a statement. Among the cities affected were New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Dallas.
Staffing shortages today will cause delays at all three New York airports, O’Hare and Tampa International, according to the statement.
Most U.S. airports were operating without unusual delays today, according to the FAA’s travel website. Arrivals at New York’s Kennedy airport were delayed by an average of 31 minutes because of “other/staffing” issues, according to the FAA.
Chicago’s O’Hare International returned to normal operations by late morning after staffing shortages slowed arrivals earlier today, the website showed. O’Hare had delays averaging 24 minutes that probably resulted from the furloughs.
Reduced staffing at the Chicago Tracon, as Terminal Radar Approach Control is known, cut arrivals at O’Hare to 72 an hour from the usual 114, Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said in an e-mail.
The American Association of Airport Executives, an Alexandria, Virginia-based trade group representing more than 5,000 airport operators and businesses, said today it would object to any plan that takes funds from airports to make up for budget cuts.
“AAAE is supportive of ending the controller furloughs caused by sequestration, but not by raiding the FAA’s capital account to pay for operating expenses,” President Todd Hauptli said in an e-mail.
The FAA gave $3.5 billion in grants to airports in its 2012 budget. That money, which comes from taxes on airline tickets and aviation fuel, is exempt from budget cuts under sequestration.
Huerta yesterday defended his decision to furlough about 10 percent of U.S. controllers, telling House appropriators he had no choice under government-wide budget cuts and that there will be “no effect on safety” for airline passengers.
“This is government not working when we’re sitting here holding the traveling public hostage in the midst of sequestration,” JetBlue Airways Corp. Chief Executive Officer Dave Barger said today, adding that he’s “encouraged” by efforts to resolve the issue.
Huerta testified that he must look to controller salaries as the FAA seeks $637 million in cuts. 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.
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