Air-traffic controller furloughs were suspended yesterday as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration acted on legislation designed to work around across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in last month.
“Air traffic facilities will begin to return to regular staffing levels over the next 24 hours and the system will resume normal operations by Sunday evening,” Transportation Department spokesman Justin Nisly said in an e-mailed statement.
Congress voted last week to end days of flight delays stemming from air-traffic controller furloughs, allowing the FAA to shift airport-improvement funds to the controllers within the agency’s budget.
The House cleared the measure 361-41 April 26 after the Senate unanimously passed the bipartisan bill the previous night. The bill lets the FAA move as much as $253 million within its budget to end furloughs, or unpaid days off. President Barack Obama will sign the bill, spokesman Jay Carney said.
“We can’t just keep putting Band-Aids on every cut,” Democrat Obama said in his weekly address yesterday. “It’s not a responsible way to govern. There is only one way to truly fix the sequester: by replacing it before it causes further damage.”
Rolling furloughs of 10 percent of U.S. controllers began April 21. The resultant flight delays 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.
Congressional Air Travel
Obama in his address suggested that members of Congress realized the effects of the FAA cuts because they fly home each weekend. He said lawmakers should use the “same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation” to pass a deficit-reduction bill.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said “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.”
“I believe this has been mismanaged. I believe this will force them to stop these needless furloughs,” Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who voted for the measure, said April 26.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said the bill also gives the FAA enough flexibility to avert the planned June 15 closing of 149 small-airport control towers operated by agency contractors. Lawmakers voted on the measure before leaving for a week-long recess.
In addition to the 15,000 controllers, the measure also will end unpaid time off for 11,000 FAA employees who perform essential services such as safety inspections, 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 subject to furloughs if the bill 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 airport towers, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union said in a statement praising the bipartisan vote.
Under sequestration, the FAA had to pare $637 million from its budget for fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30.
House Democrats decried the move to single out the aviation agency for budget relief while not changing across-the-board cuts in programs for 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,” said Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat.
House Speaker John Boehner said the havoc created for travelers by the furloughs was a crisis invented by Obama to gain leverage in the broader debate to replace the automatic cuts with a debt-reduction agreement.
“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.”
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 Airports Council International-North America, an airport trade group in Washington, said its response to the measure 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 yesterday.
Flights in Los Angeles and Philadelphia were experiencing delays due to “staffing,” according to an FAA website. Philadelphia had returned to normal by 12:30 p.m. local time. At Los Angeles, departures were being delayed by as much as 30 minutes, according to the website.
Except for weather delays in San Francisco, other major U.S. airports were running smoothly, according to the website.
On-time performance averaged about 77 percent from April 21 through April 25 at America’s major airports, compared with almost 79 percent for the two months ended April 20, industry researcher FlightStats Inc. said in a 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.
Huerta, the FAA chief, told House appropriators April 24 that he had no choice in going ahead with the furloughs of controllers under government-wide budget cuts. He said there would be “no effect on safety” for airline passengers.
Salaries account for 70 percent of the agency’s operating budget, and 40 percent of those expenses go 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.