U.S. Congress Intervenes To Stop Controller Furloughs

 - April 29, 2013, 11:16 AM
Air traffic controllers in the U.S. gained a reprieve from the threat of mandatory furloughs last week, when legislators moved to allow the transfer of airport improvement funds into the FAA’s operations budget. (Photo: Natca)

The U.S. Congress moved to relieve the Federal Aviation Administration of its need to furlough air traffic controllers last week after five days of prolonged flight delays at major airports blamed on controller staffing reductions.

Late on April 25, the Senate passed legislation introduced by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that provides the Secretary of Transportation flexibility to transfer funds into the FAA’s operations budget to prevent the furlough of essential employees, including controllers. The House approved a similar measure on April 26, sending the legislation to the White House for final approval.

The trade group Airlines for America (A4A) applauded the senators “for their bipartisan leadership in ensuring that the two million passengers and 50,000 tons of cargo that our members fly every day are not needlessly impacted by lengthy flight delays and cancellations.” A4A, the Air Line Pilots Association and the Regional Airline Association earlier sought to prevent the FAA from furloughing controllers by filing a legal petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals. The court initially denied their request for an emergency stay to block the furloughs from starting.

Not every party expressed complete satisfaction with the congressional solution to stopping the furloughs. Although the Airports Council International-North America applauded the end to the furloughs and the return of the nation’s air transportation system to full capacity, it criticized the means of doing so. “We are disappointed that the Airport Improvement Program was used to pay for this fix, as these funds were paid by passengers to maintain and enhance airport runways and taxiways, not fund FAA operations,” the organization said in a statement.

“Sequestration,” the controversial process of sweeping federal government budget cuts, requires the FAA to reduce its spending by more than $600 million in the current fiscal year. The agency sought to recoup about a third of that amount by requiring controllers to take one day of unpaid leave, or furlough, every 10 working days. That would leave the nation’s ATC system short each day by about 1,500 controllers, or 10 percent of the FAA’s controller work force of 15,000.

The FAA started furloughing controllers on April 21. The effect on traffic flows at major airports reportedly proved minimal that day–a Sunday–but it worsened as the week progressed. On April 23 the FAA started issuing daily updates on nationwide “traffic management initiatives,” the term the agency uses for special procedures to manage air traffic demand and capacity. “Travelers can expect to see a wide range of delays that will change throughout the day depending on staffing and weather-related issues,” the agency advised. “…Controllers will space airplanes farther apart so they can manage traffic with current staff.”

Reports of the number of flights delayed during the first week by both controller furloughs and bad weather varied. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, citing FAA data, said the number of flight delays from April 21 to 24 more than tripled from the same period a year earlier, to 8,804. A4A said controller furloughs delayed 4,000 flights in the first week.