House Joins Senate Voting to End Air-Controller Furloughs

Congress passed legislation to end days of flight delays stemming from air-traffic controller furloughs, letting the Federal Aviation Administration work around across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in last month.

The House cleared the measure 361-41 yesterday 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 today. “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.”

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.

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,” Schuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who voted for the measure, said yesterday.

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.

Other Workers

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 inspectors and technicians, 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 applauding the bipartisan vote.

Under sequestration, the FAA had to pare $637 million from its budget for fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30.

Cuts’ Effect

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.”

Controller Payroll

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.

Flight Delays

Delays at major U.S. airports continued yesterday.

Staffing shortages were blamed for late-arriving flights at the New York area’s three major airports -- LaGuardia, Kennedy International and New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International --as of 6 p.m. local time, according to an FAA website. Some missed LaGuardia arrival times by an average of 1 3/4 hours.

Except for weather delays in San Francisco, other major U.S. airports were running normally, 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 yesterday 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.

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