Lawmakers cancel FAA furloughs, flee Washington – by air

Air travelers breathed a sigh of relief after Congress passed quick legislation allowing the FAA to cancel furloughs for air traffic controllers. But that's just increased partisan sniping over the sequester and its across-the-board budget cuts.

David Goldman/AP
A passenger waits for his flight at Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta Friday. Congress approved legislation ending furloughs of air traffic controllers that have delayed hundreds of flights daily, infuriating travelers and causing political headaches for lawmakers. The FAA says things should be back to normal by Sunday evening.

On behalf of steaming-mad air travelers – some forced to wait hours or have their flights canceled – Congress gave the Federal Aviation Administration special dispensation to call furloughed air traffic controllers back to work.

Then most of them scooted out of town for a week’s vacation, heading for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (known to Democrats as “Washington National”) or to Dulles International.

On Saturday came good travel news for all air travelers, no matter their political affiliation, the FAA announcing simply:

“The FAA has suspended all employee furloughs. Air traffic facilities will begin to return to regular staffing levels over the next 24 hours and the system will resume normal operations by Sunday evening.”

(Which came as particularly good news to Decoder, who’s scheduled to fly cross-country and back – six flights in all – this coming week.)

But none of those now-absent members of House and Senate should expect to receive much constituent praise for having over-ruled themselves on behalf of the FAA. It took breaking part of the “sequester” scheme for across-the-board budget cuts, designed to force themselves (and the Obama administration) to come to agreement on government spending and the deficit.

Who’s to blame? The other guy, of course.

In his radio address Saturday, President Obama had this to say:

“It was a bad idea then. And as the country saw this week, it’s a bad idea now….”

Republicans fired back.

"There are some in the Obama administration who thought inflicting pain on the public would give the president more leverage to avoid making necessary spending cuts, and to impose more tax hikes on the American people,'' said Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House transportation committee, in the GOP address. “This episode is yet another demonstration of why we need to replace the president’s sequester with smarter, more responsible cuts.”

“The president’s sequester” – that was part of the budget deal agreed to by the Republican-controlled House, of which House Speaker John Boehner (R) said, “I got 98 percent of what I wanted.”

But relieving air traffic controllers of their furlough (one day every two weeks) involves more than air travel.

No furloughs for federal meat inspectors (another sequester dispensation) is one thing – most Americans are yet to adopt vegetarianism – but air travel is seen as something benefitting business travelers and others who are better off.

“Unfortunately for millions of Americans who cannot afford to get on a plane, Congress has yet to repeal the disastrous and devastating cuts to important programs for the poor, mothers, children, and many others,” the Center for American Progress Action Fund complained.”

Obama took up the same theme Saturday.

“Because of these reckless cuts, there are parents whose kids just got kicked out of Head Start programs scrambling for a solution,” he said. “There are seniors who depend on programs like Meals on Wheels to live independently looking for help.  Here are military communities – families that have already sacrificed enough – coping under new strains. All because of these cuts.”

As for flight delays, waving a legislative wand over the sequester won’t end the problem entirely, of course. On Wednesday, for example, the FAA reported “more than 863 delays in the system … attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough at the New York, Washington, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Los Angeles En Route Centers, the Potomac, Dallas and Southern California TRACONs and Detroit Tower.”

In addition that day, there were more than 2,132 additional delays as a result of weather, maintenance problems, crew scheduling, and other factors.

But as relieved air travelers took note of the FAA’s good news Saturday, and as both parties continued to argue about the sequester, Rep. Shuster said something on which all can agree:

“The American people deserve better, and leaders in Washington have an obligation to respect your time and money.”

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