Politics

April 24, 2013

FAA urged to call back controllers amid flight delays

Republicans say the FAA should have made less impactful cuts, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, calls the situation 'a manufactured crisis.'

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Lauren Messner of New York City waits for her delayed flight home at the Portland International Jetport in Portland Monday afternoon on April 22, 2013. Messner, originally from Portland, was told when she checked-in that her flight was delayed for one hour due to the air-traffic controller cutbacks.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Nick Repenning of Whitefield checks the flight screen to see if a flight is on time at the Portland International Jetport in Portland Monday afternoon on April 22, 2013.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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