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Flight delayed? Republicans blame FAA, and FAA blames 'sequester.' (+video)

Testifying on Capitol Hill Wednesday, the FAA administrator said furloughs of air-traffic controllers – and hence flight delays – are unavoidable under the 'sequester.' House Republicans challenged his assessment.

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Huerta told a House Appropriations Committee panel, on which Rogers sits, that the FAA is doing all it can to keep disruptions minimal.

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He said the agency took steps to reduce its budget in numerous ways, cutting spending on things like training, travel, and equipment, and administrative overhead to reduce the amount of traffic-tower furloughs needed. It also asked planes at 149 small airports to manage their own takeoffs and landings, without manned towers.

“Eighty-four percent of our employees are in the field dealing with safety-critical functions,” Huerta said. So cutting other parts of the FAA budget goes only so far.

Republicans were still skeptical, with one asking why a 4 percent cut in overall FAA spending is resulting in a 10 percent reduction in control-tower staffing.

Huerta explained that the FAA needs to make the cuts add up to 4 percent of its full-year budget, but has only about six months left in the fiscal year.

He said the top priority is ensuring air safety. The furloughs mean that traffic controllers in some cases are slowing down the flow of planes at a given airport, to ensure that safety is not compromised by having fewer controllers.

Huerta defended his agency’s decision to schedule the furloughs evenly across US airports, rather than, say, imposing lighter furloughs at the nation’s busiest hubs. His team calculated that imposing furloughs in “unequal fashion” would still cause more delays in the system.

Democrats at the hearing came to Huerta’s defense.

“It is mystifying to me that some are surprised by these delays or blame FAA for Congress’s failure,” said Rep. Nita Lowey of New Mexico. “We must replace these mindless cuts with a renewed focus on jobs, economic growth, and a balanced package of long-term deficit reduction.”

Republicans tried to bore in on whether the FAA or the Obama administration is missing opportunities to adjust the sequester impacts, to mitigate adverse effects on the public.

“We have taken full advantage of the flexibilities we have" to move money around within various parts of the FAA, Huerta said.

But he said the agency hadn’t asked Congress to provide a legislative remedy for air-traffic control.

Some in both parties have voiced support for such legislation.

But Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) complained Wednesday that a new bill proposed by Democrats would restore flight-control funding but wouldn’t pay for it with other spending cuts. He said their proposal funds the FAA using “a fiscally irresponsible gimmick” involving overseas military operations.

The Kentucky senator called the proposal a “feeble attempt” by Democrats to cover for the flight delays on Mr. Obama’s watch.

On Friday, a trade group for the airline industry filed a legal action to put a halt to the furloughs. The group Airlines for America says the FAA cutbacks are “based on false premises and would do substantial harm to the airlines, their employees and their customers.”

The group’s chief executive officer, Nicholas Calio, complained that “it is irresponsible [of the FAA] to suggest that a 10 percent reduction of air-traffic control hours should mean 40 percent fewer flights can arrive on time” at some airports.

The airline association said traffic controllers should be deemed “essential” federal employees. And Mr. Calio said, “We continue to believe that the FAA has other means to reach a 10 percent budget reduction than to impact the traveling public.”

He said the association has been asking the FAA for months for specifics about how it plans to implement furloughs.

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