Flight delays coming to an end? House votes next on FAA furloughs.

The Senate voted Thursday to let the FAA repurpose money so it can halt furloughs of 15,000 air traffic controllers and end flight delays, tweaking rules of the 'sequester.' The House votes on the bill Friday.

Elaine Thompson/AP
A Southwest Airlines jet waits to depart in view of the air traffic control tower at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Wednesday. The House votes on a bill Friday to allow the FAA to end furloughs for air traffic controllers.

The US Senate approved legislation late Thursday that would end furloughs for air traffic controllers and avoid potential delays for millions of air travelers. The House votes on the bill Friday morning and is expected to pass it, say lawmakers.

The Senate bill, which passed unanimously, allows the Federal Aviation Administration to transfer $253 million from other FAA programs to its operations account, to "prevent reduced operations and staffing" through Sept. 30, the end of the government's fiscal year.

“I am so happy that we were able to work together across the aisle in a bipartisan way to solve this problem,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who co-authored the legislation. “It’s nice to know when we work together we really can solve problems.”

The furloughs of air traffic controllers stems from the “sequester,” the $85 billion in congressionally mandated automatic spending cuts that went into effect March 1. The FAA's share of that cut is $637 million.

As a result, the FAA reduced the work schedules of its nearly 47,000 employees, including 15,000 air traffic controllers, and thousands of air traffic supervisors, managers, and technicians who monitor and repair equipment in airport control towers. Employees are furloughed one day every two weeks, which results in a 10 percent cut in hours and pay, the FAA said.

For air travelers on Wednesday, 863 flights were delayed because of “employee furloughs due to sequestration,” the FAA said in a statement. An additional 2,132 flights were delayed because of weather and other factors.

"It will be good news for America's traveling public if Congress spares them these unnecessary delays,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement late Thursday. "But ultimately, this is no more than a temporary band-aid that fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester's mindless across the board cuts.”

Restoring air traffic controllers to full staffing would cost more than $200 million, plus another $50 million to keep open smaller air traffic towers that the FAA has proposed closing, policymakers estimate.

Sen. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado said he is “very confident” that the bill will pass the GOP-controlled House. "I know the House and its leadership in both caucuses will understand the importance of doing this for our economy," he said in a conference call late Thursday, reported The Wall Street Journal.

During a House hearing on Wednesday, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the staff furloughs were an unavoidable consequence of the sequester, though Republican lawmakers have said the FAA could have handled the budget cuts differently.

"How come you didn't tell us about this beforehand, the sequester, impact on the layoffs, the furloughs? Not a word. Not a breath," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R) of Kentucky asked Mr. Huerta at the hearing.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said he is glad the bill excludes tax increases.

“Republicans have long said that the way to address these issues is through smarter cuts – not tax hikes or phony savings. And that’s what this legislation does,” Don Stewart, spokesman for Senator McConnell, told Politico.

– Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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