Flight delayed? Republicans blame FAA, and FAA blames 'sequester.'

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.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
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.'

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.

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.

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

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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