WASHINGTON — Top lawmakers in both parties are questioning the Obama administration’s decision to furlough air-traffic controllers to comply with automatic budget cuts, with some calling for congressional action to stem the resulting wave of flight delays.
Leaders of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee sent a letter to Transportation Department officials questioning whether the administration has no other choice but to trigger staff reductions causing “substantial possible disruptions.” Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the committee’s ranking Republican, also are demanding details about the impact on air safety from the furloughs and shutting some control towers.
“The FAA’s plan to furlough air traffic controllers and close so many contract towers raises serious safety and operational issues,” the two wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta that was released Tuesday.
Others said Congress should approve legislation reversing that cut, as well as the scheduled June 15 closing of 149 privately contracted air traffic control towers. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who is leading a drive to prevent the tower closures, accused the White House of using furloughs to illustrate the impact of the across-the-board cuts at a time when President Barack Obama seeks to replace those cuts with a bipartisan deficit-reduction deal.
“To me it certainly seems that politics is playing a significant role in determining what actions the FAA is taking,” Moran said at a news conference. He said “it emanates from the White House.”
Airlines and passengers braced for more delays as the U.S. government’s automatic budget cuts, triggered by a process known as sequestration, furlough air-traffic controllers and slow operations at some of the busiest hubs.
Some flights to New York’s La Guardia airport ran almost two hours late as high winds exacerbated congestion at 8:30 a.m. local time, the FAA said on its travel website. New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport had arrival delays exceeding 90 minutes.
The FAA said Tuesday that it was experiencing “staffing challenges” nationwide and that controllers will space planes further apart to manage traffic with current staff, according to an email from Justin Nisly, a Transportation Department spokesman. More than 1,200 flight delays yesterday were attributed to staff reductions tied to the furlough, he said.
The FAA said last week that delays may reach more than two hours with fewer controllers on duty. An average of about 10 percent of controllers will be on furlough on any given day, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association estimated.
NATCA said that Tuesday’s delays were just the beginning of what promises to be a huge economic disruption,” and that the FAA cuts also are forcing the agency to cancel training, halt airport modernization work and even use budget-draining overtime pay for remaining controllers at the busiest airports.
“It’s simply math – furloughing controllers earning base while paying others base pay plus an additional 50 percent will not result in savings,” the controllers group said.
A clash between Congress and the administration has been growing in recent weeks as the automatic cuts have been made, with some of the most visible results occurring with FAA operations.
The plan to close the 149 air-traffic control towers has galvanized opposition like few other moves under the budget cuts, uniting rural lawmakers, businesses, unions and advocacy groups for aircraft owners and other users at the mostly smaller airports affected.
The FAA, responding to criticism in Congress and lawsuits by airports, delayed the closings earlier this month until June 15. LaHood told a House panel April 16 that the agency can’t forestall the closures any further.
With the FAA furloughs now expanding the scope of passenger inconvenience in agency cutbacks, calls for action are gaining more immediacy.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Tuesday called on the administration to postpone the controller furloughs for 30 days to enable Congress to come up with a budget solution that will cut the FAA’s budget elsewhere.
“Our authority certainly would permit a more-flexible and constructive response to sequestration requirements,” Blumenthal said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday said the FAA failed to give the traveling public very much notice of the magnitude of the furloughs. He said the agency can and must use its existing budget authority to resolve the issue, and that the administration didn’t support earlier efforts in Congress to give it an even greater ability to shift budget-cut demands within existing plans.
“If for some reason the President or FAA don’t believe they have the flexibility to address this issue, they should ask Congress for the flexibility they need,” he said on the Senate floor. “Until then, however, they should use the flexibility we all know they do have to ease the burden on passengers.”
In the Republican-led House, party leaders also are looking to the Obama administration to replace the furloughs with other budget cuts, without congressional action, said Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Cooper said the FAA’s budget has “more than doubled” in the last 15 years, so finding other cuts should be “doable.” One option, he insisted, is for the agency to make any controller cuts in less-congested airports, while leaving others fully staffed.
“They can make a lot of decisions here so that Americans don’t have to feel the pain, but clearly that’s their intent,” Cooper said.
The FAA has no choice other than the furloughs if it must cut $637 million from its $16 billion budget by Sept. 30, Huerta told a Senate hearing April 16. The agency spends 70 percent of its budget on its payroll and can’t cut enough in other areas to reach the goal, he said.
While the FAA plans to cut funding to 149 towers run by private contractors at small and mid-sized airports, it can’t cut other contracts, he said. The agency’s largest contract is for upkeep of its air-traffic communications system, which is critical for running the system, he said.
When asked why the agency couldn’t furlough more controllers in towers and radar rooms that weren’t choke points in the system, Huerta said that it wouldn’t be fair to the workforce to impose a heavier penalty on some workers than others.
Huerta said at an April 18 press conference that he is taking unpaid days equal to FAA employees. He will continue working on those days, he said.