By Richard Cowan and Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON — The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said at the weekend that it had suspended the contentious temporary unpaid leave of air-traffic controllers that had led to flight delays and cancellations.
The FAA expected operations to return to normal by Sunday night.
The US Congress on Friday approved a plan to ease nationwide air-traffic delays caused by federal spending cuts, seeking to calm irritated travellers but sparking a backlash from groups still being hit by budget cuts.
The Senate unanimously voted for the plan late on Thursday and the House of Representatives approved it on Friday by a 361-41 vote. White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama intended to sign the bill.
The bill will let the transportation department use about $250m in unspent funds to cover the immediate salaries of air traffic controllers and other essential FAA staff who had been put on furlough.
Legislators hurried the bill through, eager to stem the growing wrath of the travelling public, which had dealt with significant take-off and landing delays.
They had also faced anger from airline CEOs, whose companies had mounted a grassroots campaign through a website called dontgroundamerica.com, encouraging Americans to send messages to Congress and the White House.
Congressional approval of the air travel bill, barely four pages long, came as legislators prepared to fly out of Washington for a week-long recess. Democratic Representative Chris van Hollen scolded fellow legislators for frantically pushing the bill through just before the break, making their travels easier.
“After just one week of unpaid leave, it is abundantly clear that a fully staffed air traffic control workforce is necessary for our national airspace system to operate at full capacity,” the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said.
The cuts, known as “sequestration”, were conceived by Washington in 2011 as a way to force the White House and Congress to find an alternative budget deal rather than have cuts kick in automatically. But policy makers failed to reach such a deal earlier this year and the cuts went into effect on March 1.
Unless Congress comes up with a better spending plan for the next fiscal year, air traffic controllers could find themselves back on furlough some time after October 1, when a new round of automatic spending cuts is scheduled.
Airlines for America head Nicholas Calio praised Congress’s action, saying: “The winners here are the customers who will be spared from lengthy and needless delays.”
The companies might consider themselves winners too, as they faced potential losses that could have climbed to millions of dollars a day in a worst-case scenario.
The move comes with the risk, though, of igniting lobbying campaigns to ease other programme cuts triggered by sequestration.
The US Travel Association said on Friday that it appreciated Congress’s swift action but expressed concern that funds could be diverted from critical projects to upgrade airports.
Without the legislation, the FAA said it would have had to keep 47,000 employees on unpaid leave until September 30 to save the $637m required by the sequestration. Of those 47,000 workers, almost 15,000 were full-time air traffic controllers or trainees.
While supporting the legislation, the White House said on Friday that it fell short of broader action needed on sequestration. “It would be good news for America’s travelling public if Congress spares them the unnecessary delays,” Mr Carney said,
He said legislators need to take additional steps to alleviate the effect of the cuts beyond the airline industry, such as among poorer elderly people and defense industry workers. That could be accomplished through a long-term budget deal “that would replace the sequester altogether”, he said.