By Laura Litvan
Two senators will introduce legislation today to let the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration tap airport improvement funds to pay air-traffic controllers, in an effort to end flight delays caused by forced budget cuts.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said she discussed the move with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who, she said, called it “an effective, workable solution.”
Senate leaders may consider legislation ending furloughs of air-traffic controllers as early as today, said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the third- ranking Democratic leader. They could consider the measure sponsored by Collins and Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, or one being drafted by Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who was one of two senators LaHood met with yesterday, he said.
“Common sense tells all of us that this can’t go on,” Southwest Airlines Co. Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said in an interview today. “It does need a quick resolution.”
An Internet sales-tax measure under consideration in the Senate could be a vehicle to pay for ending the furloughs, said a Democratic aide who asked not to be named because the proposal hasn’t been made.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney yesterday said the Obama administration is willing to consider resolving the FAA’s budget woes separately from across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, at other agencies.
“If Congress wants to address specifically the problems caused by the sequester with the FAA, we would be open to looking at that,” Carney told reporters. “But that would be a Band-Aid measure.”
The Collins-Udall measure would also allow the transferred funds to be used to operate 149 privately operated air-traffic control towers at small airports that are scheduled to close June 15.
“If the Senate produces something, we’ll take a look at it,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
LaHood’s spokeswoman, Sasha Johnson, declined in an interview to discuss the secretary’s conversations with lawmakers because they were private.
Flight delays more than doubled in the first three days of the furloughs from the same period a year ago, with 5,809 flights late from April 21 through yesterday, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, citing FAA data.
Of about 3,000 flight delays reported yesterday, at least 863 were due to staffing reductions in airport towers and regional facilities, the FAA said today in a statement. Among the cities affected were New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Dallas.
Staffing shortages today will cause delays at all three New York airports, O’Hare and Tampa International, according to the statement.
Most U.S. airports were operating without unusual delays early today, according to the FAA’s travel website. Arrivals at New York’s Kennedy airport were delayed by an average of 31 minutes because of “other/staffing” issues, according to the FAA.
Chicago’s O’Hare International returned to normal operations by late morning after staffing shortages slowed arrivals earlier today, the website showed. O’Hare had delays averaging 24 minutes that probably resulted from the furloughs.
Reduced staffing at the Chicago Tracon, as Terminal Radar Approach Control is known, cut arrivals at O’Hare to 72 an hour from the usual 114, according to the controllers union.
Clouds prevented the facility from allowing pilots to land using visual cues, and there are too few controllers to allow simultaneous approaches under instrument flight rules, Doug Church, a union spokesman, said in an e-mail. O’Hare is the second-busiest U.S. airport and a hub for United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL) and AMR Corp. (AAMRQ)’s American Airlines.
The American Association of Airport Executives, an Alexandria, Virginia-based trade group representing more than 5,000 airport operators and businesses, said today it would object to any plan that takes funds for airports to make up for budget cuts.
“AAAE is supportive of ending the controller furloughs caused by sequestration, but not by raiding the FAA’s capital account to pay for operating expenses,” President Todd Hauptli said in an e-mail.
The FAA gave $3.5 billion in grants to airports in its 2012 budget. That money, which comes from taxes on airline tickets and aviation fuel, is exempt from budget cuts under sequestration.
Huerta yesterday defended his decision to furlough about 10 percent of U.S. controllers, telling House appropriators he had no choice under government-wide budget cuts and that there will be “no effect on safety” for airline passengers.
“This is government not working when we’re sitting here holding the traveling public hostage in the midst of sequestration,” JetBlue Airways Corp. Chief Executive Officer Dave Barger said today, adding that he’s “encouraged” by efforts to resolve the issue.
Huerta testified that he must look to controller salaries as the FAA seeks $637 million in cuts. Seventy percent of the agency’s operating budget is in payroll, and 40 percent of that amount goes to air traffic controllers, he said.
Asked whether he could concentrate furloughs at less- congested airports, Huerta said the FAA has to avoid picking “winners and losers” among airlines by sparing larger hubs.
Republican lawmakers are accusing Obama’s administration of inventing a crisis to serve its interests in a budget-cut fight, while Democrats say Republicans ignored the consequences of the policy many of them supported that requires the spending reductions.
Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, and Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, have proposed legislation to allow the FAA to transfer funds within its own budget, or even to take money from the Department of Transportation, to help it avert forced days off.
“Clearly, there is room in the DOT discretionary accounts to mitigate some of the $206 million reduction to air traffic controllers,” Hoeven said in a statement. “America’s economy runs on transportation, including air travel, and delays like we’re seeing this week are disrupting commerce and causing real inconvenience for travelers.”