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News & Observer - Congress fixes air travel delays by ending air traffic controller furloughs

April 26, 2013
In The News

By Bruce Siceloff

Congress approved a quick budget fix Friday to end air traffic controller furloughs that have delayed thousands of airline flights across the country this week.

The action also appeared to cancel plans by the Federal Aviation Administration to shut down control towers at 149 small airports, including five in North Carolina.

The FAA this week began requiring its 13,000 traffic controllers to take one-day furloughs – unpaid days off – in response to mandatory spending cuts triggered by the so-called sequestration stalemate reached when Congress and President Barack Obama failed to agree on a deficit reduction plan.

After travelers and airline pilots blamed Washington for flight delays that sometimes lasted hours, Congress agreed to let the Transportation Department shift up to $253 million from other parts of the FAA budget to cover controllers' salaries.

The Senate passed its version Thursday night. In the House, there was sharp debate over budget priorities Friday before the measure was approved 361 to 41.

Some Democrats complained that Congress was quick to help air travelers while ignoring the effects of budget cuts to programs that affect schools, people in poverty and other areas.

"Today we're going to apply a much-needed Band-Aid to air traffic control," said Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat. "Maybe tomorrow we can have a bill applying to cancer research. Then the next day let's have a bill about cancer treatment. Then the next day let's have a bill about Head Start. Then let's have one about tuition assistance to our military personnel. Then let's have one about the Border Patrol.

"And by the way, if and when we apply these Band-Aids, we need to realize we're shifting cuts to equally important areas that aren't in the news at the moment, or that don't have powerful lobbies working on their behalf," Price said.

Republicans argued that the Obama administration could have absorbed the FAA budget cuts without furloughing its traffic controllers.

"This is no way to run a government," said Rep. Tom Latham, a Republican from Iowa who heads the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee. Rep. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, called the problem "President Obama's needless furlough."

The House debate capped a week of protests from consumers and growing concern that federal budget cuts were crippling the nation's air traffic system. Hundreds of flights a day encountered delays attributed to the furloughs, snarling the nation's commercial aviation system.

Without a fix, the problem was expected only to get worse with the busy summer travel season approaching. Some airline officials sided with Republicans in blaming the Democratic Obama administration.

"We are disappointed that the FAA chose this path that maximizes customer disruptions and damage to airlines instead of choosing a less disruptive method to comply with the budget obligations," United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek said Thursday in a conference call.

Charlotte's airport, a busy US Airways hub, suffered the worst flight delays in North Carolina this week. A spokeswoman for Raleigh-Durham International Airport reported normal numbers of weather-related delays.

Passengers arriving at RDU Friday on flights from Atlanta, Miami and other cities said they had not suffered delays this week and had not been concerned about the furloughs. Fewer than a dozen RDU flights were listed as arriving or departing late, with only one – an inbound flight from Toronto – delayed more than an hour.

Small airports in limbo

In addition to furloughs of FAA employees who work the towers at major airports, the FAA had said in March that it would close towers at smaller airports where the agency pays private contractors to hire and manage traffic controllers. In North Carolina, the list included airports in New Bern, Kinston, Winston-Salem, Hickory and Concord.

In April, federal officials said they would postpone the contract tower closings until June 15, to give pilots more time to adjust to the change.

A spokesman for Sen. Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat, said Friday that the action by Congress would enable the FAA to prevent the tower closings at the 149 small airports. Richard Walls, a deputy state transportation secretary whose responsibilities include North Carolina airports, said he also expected the FAA would keep them open.

But the FAA did not issue a statement or respond to questions about when the furloughs would end and whether the contract towers would stay open.

Tom Braaten, director of New Bern's Coastal Carolina Regional Airport, said Friday he was glad to hear that Congress had taken action. But he is not ready to celebrate until his airport's fate is certain.

"I'd like things a little blacker-and-whiter before I get excited, but I am happy they are doing something," Braaten said. "I'm hopeful that our tower will not close now,