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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.

By Staff writer / April 24, 2013

Travelers stand in line at Los Angeles International airport Monday. The FAA Administrator said the agency had to furlough control-tower staff, and it sees a rise in flight delays as an inescapable consequence of this spring's across-the-board federal spending cuts tied to the 'sequester.'

Damian Dovarganes/AP

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Flight delays at US airports starting this week are unavoidable because of budget cuts, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration told Congress Wednesday, seeking to deflect Republican criticism.

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FAA furloughs are keeping 15,000 air traffic controllers off the job, creating airport delays and frustrating travelers. CBS News' Manuel Bojorquez reports.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency had to furlough control-tower staff, and it sees a rise in flight delays as an inescapable consequence of this spring's across-the-board federal spending cuts tied to legislation known as the “sequester.”

Republican lawmakers questioned that view at a budget hearing, suggesting that the spending cuts could be done differently and that the FAA had done a poor job preparing airports and airlines for this week’s cuts in staffing of air-traffic controllers.

Rep. Harold Rogers (R) of Kentucky pushed this view the hardest, asserting that it seems like a “shocking lapse of management” that airlines got details about the furlough plans only last Tuesday.

Administrator Huerta said the FAA had given general warnings, back in February, that the budget cuts would require a roughly 10 percent reduction in control-tower staffing, affecting airports including major hubs.

“Well, lah-tee-dah. Everyone knew that,” Representative Rogers said.

Under questioning from Rogers, Huerta said airlines had “expressed great concern” when they heard details about the FAA cutbacks on April 16.

Another testy exchange was about whether Huerta kept the looming budget challenge too much to himself. Rogers asked whether Huerta has asked Congress for greater flexibility, so the sequester cuts wouldn't fall so harshly on traffic control.

“No,” Huerta said.

“That's what I thought,” Rogers responded.

This verbal clash is a sign of how the FAA furloughs have emerged as a focal point of budget politics.

Both Republicans and Democrats say the sequester, with its automatic spending cuts across most federal programs, is a bad idea – and that the answer is to replace the cuts with a long-term plan for fiscal solvency.

But many Democrats say Republicans, in their zeal for spending cuts, are to blame for allowing the sequester to go into effect in March. So far, the general public has seen relatively few headline-grabbing effects of the spending cuts.

That changed early this week, with reports of furlough-related flight delays at many airports.

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama would be "open" to legislation designed to give the administration budget-cutting flexibility to avoid furloughs at the FAA.

The flight delays aren’t necessarily huge, and it remains early to assess how bad they’ll ultimately be during the busy summer travel season.

“Yesterday more than 1,200 delays in the system were attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough,” the FAA said in a statement Tuesday. That’s about 5 percent of all flights on a typical day.

More flights were delayed Monday because of “weather and other factors” – some 1,400 – than because of furloughs, the agency said.

Still, the delays are causing frustrations for travelers. Many flights were delayed for an hour or more.

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