Senators propose bipartisan bill to end FAA’s controller furloughs

 

Two Senators this week proposed legislation that could stop the controversial air-traffic controller furloughs that started Monday.

Senators John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on Wednesday introduced the Dependable Air Service Act, which would authorize the Transportation Department to shift additional funds toward controllers.

“Clearly, there is room in the [department’s] discretionary accounts to mitigate some of the $206 million reduction to air traffic controllers,” Hoeven said.

A plane lands at Newark Libery International Airport in Newark, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP). A plane lands at Newark Libery International Airport in Newark, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP).

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association applauded the bipartisan legislation, saying in a statement: “We urge swift approval of this measure so that controllers can return to work full time and passengers and carriers can operate without the threat of unnecessary delays.”

The FAA must reduce spending by $637 million this year because of the government-wide budget cuts that took effect last month. The agency announced last week that it would impose furloughs starting Monday as part of its plan to absorb its share of the so-called sequester.

In New York on Monday, flights fell behind by one to three hours as about 10 percent of controllers took mandatory time off work, according to airport officials.

The FAA said in a statement this week that furloughs affecting 1,500 air-traffic controllers on Monday delayed more than 1,200 flights. The agency has estimated that up to 6,700 flights could arrive late each day because of the cutbacks.

Greg Principato, the president of a group that represents U.S. airports, said on Monday that he expects the delays would grow worse as the nation moved into peak summer-travel season.

Republicans this week accused the Obama administration of creating a “manufactured crisis.” They joined the airline industry in voicing frustration with the FAA’s decision to announce its final furlough plans just days before air-traffic controllers were forced to take time off work.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday: “The Obama administration knew about the sequester for months, yet it gave the traveling public and Congress only three days notice before implementing the furloughs that are now being blamed for these delays.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday introduced a bill that would defer all sequester cuts until October, paying for the costs by counting savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — a plan that Republicans have described as a budgeting gimmick.

On the House side, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said during a hearing last month on sequester planning that agencies should ask Congress for greater budgeting flexibility if they need it to avoid furloughs.

Klobuchar said in a statement on Wednesday that the Dependable Air Service Act would accomplish that goal. “This legislation will give the FAA the flexibility it needs to keep air traffic controllers working to keep passengers safe, prevent flight delays, and make sure our aviation system can continue to be the strongest in the world.”

Airline Pilots Association president Lee Moak on Monday accused Washington of using air travel as “a pawn in a budget debate.” The White House has brushed off that allegation.

Shortly after the sequester took effect, the FAA announced plans to close more than 100 small-airport towers in April. U.S. airlines filed a lawsuit to postpone the closures until mid-June, but the agency warned that it might need to enact more furloughs if it didn’t move forward with the plan.

 

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Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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