By Keith Laing
The fight on Capital Hill this week over furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) produced winners and losers in Washington.
The FAA on Sunday began furloughing its 47,000 employees, including 15,000 air traffic controllers, to meet the budget cuts required under sequestration.
The agency had warned for months that the sequester would result in flight delays, but had instituted a “traffic management” plan to deal with reduced staffing. Under the system, flights that were otherwise ready to depart were held back to manage air traffic congestion.
Flight delays quickly mounted across the country, touching off a firestorm in Washington. Senators on Thursday quickly passed a quick fix for the FAA furloughs, and the House followed suit on Friday.
Here’s a look at the winners and losers in the political fight over the FAA.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). The centrist Republican senator was credited with brokering a deal to give the FAA flexibility to move funds around in its budget to end the furloughs. Collins’s bill won unanimous consent in the Senate on Thursday evening after supporters were unsuccessful in their efforts to attach the measure as an amendment to a bill that was already on the floor.
Airlines. The airline industry waged an aggressive public relations campaign against the FAA cuts, and enlisted frustrated travelers in the cause. Throughout the week, announcements were made at gates and on delayed flights that directed passengers to a website called DontGroundAmerica.com. By the end of the week, 19,532 people had used the website to submit a form letter opposing the furloughs to Congress and the FAA, according to the airlines.
Business travelers. Because the FAA furloughs began on Sunday, business travelers likely suffered the brunt of the delays. The frequent fliers have been spared from what likely would have been months of disrupted travel during the summer tourism season.
President Obama. President Obama and Democrats in Congress argued that the best solution to the flight delays would be to eliminate the sequester entirely. Obama had argued there would be “no smart way” to implement the cuts to federal spending. By mid-week, however, the White House said Obama would be “open” to an FAA-only fix, and Obama is expected to sign the legislation that was passed by the House on Friday, opening the door to similar measures in the future.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The Senate majority leader produced a bill to replace the entire sequester with money he said would be saved when U.S. troops are removed from Afghanistan. Reid said the money could be used to reverse the sequester cuts for five months, but senators rejected that plan and opted instead to pass Collins’s FAA-specific fix.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Gillibrand proposed fixing the FAA problems by increasing taxes on corporate jet owners. She said Congress should prioritize “keeping commercial air travel fully operational for middle class families and small businesses” over “protecting tax breaks for wealthy corporate jet owners who don’t need them.” The proposal was a non-starter with Senate Republicans, however, and was never seriously considered.
Defense industry. The defense industry has lobbied to reverse the sequester cuts to the Pentagon budget for more than a year, but has failed to move legislation through Congress. In the course of a week, with the help of the publicized delays, the airlines were able to achieve what has eluded the defense firms: a sequester fix that protects their priorities.