April 26 (Bloomberg) -- 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 voted 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.
In addition to the 15,000 controllers, the measure also will end furloughs of 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.”
The delays since April 21 show the need for fully staffed air-traffic facilities, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union said in an e-mail statement after the vote.
“We applaud the bipartisan nature of the votes and look forward to working closely with the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure the newly granted flexibility is exercised in a way that maintains our national airspace system’s status as the safest and most efficient in the world,” the Washington-based union said in the statement.
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.
House Speaker John Boehner said the furloughs created havoc for travelers that were an invented crisis by President Barack Obama as he tries to get leverage in the broader debate to replace the automatic cuts with a debt-reduction pact.
“It’s unacceptable that the FAA chose not to plan for sequestration or utilize the flexibility it already has,” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement after the vote. “Americans were rightly fed up, and it’s unfortunate that the House and Senate were forced to step in and fix the problem when the President chose not to act.”
Under sequestration, the FAA had to pare $637 million from its budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
A group representing large airlines heralded congressional passage of the FAA legislation.
“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.
At the same time, the Washington-based Airports Council International-North America, an airport trade group, said its response to the legislation was “bittersweet.”
“We are very disappointed that the Airport Improvement Program was used to pay for this fix, as these funds were paid by passengers to maintain and enhance airport runways and taxiways, not fund FAA operations,” said David Edwards, chief executive officer of the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport District in South Carolina and chairman of the trade group.
Delays at major U.S. airports continued today.
Staffing shortages were blamed for delays in arriving flights at the New York area’s three major airports --LaGuardia, Kennedy International and New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International -- as of 11:15 a.m. local time, according to the FAA’s travel website. The longest average wait time was 43 minutes, at LaGuardia.
Except for weather delays in San Francisco, other major U.S. airports were running normally, according to the website.
On-time performance at major U.S. airports averaged 77.2 percent from April 21 through yesterday, compared with 78.9 percent for the two months ended April 20, industry researcher FlightStats.com said today in an e-mailed statement.
“Although traffic in some airports may be experiencing more delays, the system as a whole is performing on average consistently,” Portland, Oregon-based FlightStats said.
Federal Aviation Administrator Michael 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.
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