WASHINGTON – Members of Congress urged the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday to find ways to cut spending other than by furloughing air traffic controllers, as frustration and finger-pointing continued over flight delays nationwide.
For the second straight day, major hub airports reported flight delays and cancellations due to staffing shortages in air traffic control towers. The delays also affected regional airports such as the Portland International Jetport.
Jetport director Paul Bradbury said several flights were delayed or canceled Tuesday. All of those flights originated in New York City, Newark, N.J., or Washington.
“The delays snowballed over the course of the day and only got worse,” Bradbury said Tuesday night.
Facing the prospect of worse bottlenecks in the busy summer months, Bradbury is among many who hope the FAA and Congress will find cost-saving alternatives. He questioned the rationality of delaying flights across the nation to cut federal spending.
“The economic impact to the federal government is miniscule compared to the economic impact” on the nation, Bradbury said.
The prospect of long waits for flights has caught the attention of Congress like no other issue since it allowed $85 billion in across-the-board “sequester” spending cuts to take effect March 1.
On Tuesday, the debate on Capitol Hill intensified over whether the FAA really had to furlough about 15,000 air traffic controllers, effectively reducing the work force at any given time by 10 percent. Nearly all of the agency’s 47,000 employees are required to take unpaid days off because of the budget cuts.
Republicans were loudest in criticizing the FAA and the Obama administration, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accusing the administration of “poor planning” and using the delays as a political tool.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called the situation “a manufactured crisis” and suggested that the FAA could have sought congressional authority to minimize the impact by redistributing money from other budget areas.
She accused FAA Administrator Michael Huerta of a “complete lack of communication” by not informing the Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee about the looming furloughs last week. Collins is the top Republican on the subcommittee.
“His silence was truly misleading,” Collins wrote in a letter Tuesday to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
In a conference call with reporters, LaHood rejected Republicans’ suggestions that he is making a political statement by imposing the furloughs in an area that is visible to taxpayers.
“This has nothing to do with politics,” LaHood said, according to The Associated Press. “This is very bad policy that Congress passed and they should fix it.”
He said he warned about furloughs in February so no one should be surprised that they are now delaying flights.
Michael Boyd, president of the Colorado-based aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International, said the FAA is “sabotaging the system” by furloughing air traffic controllers.
“Despite what they and the administration are saying, these are not deep cuts,” he said Tuesday. “Even after sequestration, the FAA has $1 billion more than it did five years ago and handles 8 percent fewer flights. They are not telling the truth.”
Boyd said the FAA could easily make cuts elsewhere to save the 4 percent outlined by sequestration, but it has targeted air traffic controllers “to make it as painful as possible for the industry and therefore force Congress to pass tax increases to bring their budget back up.”
Boyd said that if delays persist, airlines will have to make decisions about where to cut. In some cases, he said, they will eliminate flights, and in the worst cases, they might need to pull out of airports altogether.
“That won’t happen in Phoenix,” Boyd said. “It will happen in places like Portland.”
Gregory “Sid” McGuirk, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida who worked for 35 years as an air traffic controller or in FAA supervisory positions, said he did not want to weigh in on the politics of sequestration or the FAA’s decision.
In his 10 years at FAA headquarters, McGuirk said, he learned that people will second-guess any decision. But he said FAA officials evidently believe that the furloughs are necessary, and to operate in a system “degraded” by less staffing, they must put more space between planes for safety.
“They are going to err on the side of caution,” McGuirk said. “And that’s the right thing to do.”
Various efforts are under way in Washington to address the issue.
On Friday, three major groups representing the industry — Airlines for America, the Air Line Pilots Association and the Regional Airline Association — sued in federal court in Washington to halt the furloughs. A judge declined immediate action but will consider the case.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday that he plans to introduce a measure to blunt all of the sequestration cuts — not just those in the FAA — by reappropriating money saved by the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., urged the Obama administration to delay the furloughs and use $50 million in unused research funds in the FAA to keep open 149 air traffic control towers at smaller airports that are scheduled for closure in mid-June. Legislation to authorize the transfer has picked up support from more than 30 senators.
In Portland, Bradbury noted that one of Tuesday’s canceled flights to New York’s LaGuardia Airport had been added to the schedule just last week. He said airlines and airports have few options to mitigate the delays because flight schedules are largely dictated by demand.
Obviously angry with decisions in Washington that ripple down to his and other airports, Bradbury said he believes there must be a better way than across-the-board spending cuts.
“A more thoughtful approach would be much appreciated,” he said.
– Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.
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