Congress Rescues Controllers, Small Towers and Flies Home

 - June 1, 2013, 1:25 AM

In the space of less than 24 hours in late April, Congress passed a bill that staved off air traffic controller furloughs and produced “found” money to keep low-activity contract control towers operating. With lawmakers eying another vacation that would officially begin on April 27 and end on May 5, the Senate passed a measure on the night of April 25 that would prevent furloughs of essential FAA employees, including air traffic controllers. The House followed by noon the next day, everyone on Capitol Hill who needed to fly home for vacation headed for the airports–and any observer with even a trace of cynicism could only wonder at how swiftly Congress can pass a law when its members themselves are inconvenienced.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued a statement saying that his department “has determined that the recently enacted Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 will allow the FAA to transfer sufficient funds to end employee furloughs and keep all the 149 low-activity towers open for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013 [until September 30].”

The “found” $253 million was diverted from the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) to the FAA, and it represents 7.5 percent of the $3.35 billion allotted to the AIP this year. As events unfolded, the brouhaha over the control-tower closures was almost an afterthought, with only general aviation expressing much concern.

In an April 23 statement, the FAA blamed its plan to furlough some air traffic controllers and shutter some less-used towers on sequestration cuts brought on by budget stalemates. “As a result of employee furloughs due to sequestration, the FAA is implementing traffic management initiatives at airports and facilities around the country,” the agency explained. It warned that travelers could expect a wide range of delays that would change throughout the day depending on staffing and weather-related issues.

6,700 Daily Flight Delays Predicted

The picture the FAA painted was not pretty. It claimed to be experiencing “staffing challenges” at the New York and Los Angeles en route centers and at the Dallas/Fort Worth and Las Vegas Tracons, and said controllers would space airplanes father apart so they could manage traffic with current staff, which would lead to delays at airports including DFW, Las Vegas and LAX. Delays were expected at Newark and La Guardia because of weather and wind. The day before, the FAA said more than 1,200 delays in the system were attributable to staffing reductions from the furlough.

Officially, the congressional action came in response to passengers angered that week by long delays at several major airports. Not only was Friday April 26 expected to be one of the busiest travel days of the week, members of the House and Senate planned to fly out of Washington to spend the following week in their home states. Normal operations did not resume until Sunday.

“The Obama Administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have seen the airline delays as a way to highlight the effects of sequestration for an American public less likely to be affected directly by furloughs of federal office workers and myriad other less visible cutbacks,” The Washington Post wrote on April 26. “Their goal has been to pressure Congress to end sequestration. Even some Democrats pressing for an FAA fix acknowledged that it would undercut the party’s larger goal of replacing sequester entirely.”

Federal government officials had predicted that the controller furloughs would result in as many 6,700 flight delays each business day. But through April 25, the number of flights arriving or departing behind schedule averaged about 2,800, with many attributed to weather problems in key hub airports.

Meanwhile, 41 senators wrote to the FAA to use money that was included in the bill to end flight delays to keep the 149 contract control towers open. The FAA had planned to begin closing the contract towers on April 7, but pushed the date back to June 15 after a broad coalition of communities, airports, air traffic controllers, aviation system users and members of Congress registered strenuous objections.

“We are grateful that the leaders of the DOT and the FAA have moved to use the clear authority by the Congress to keep contract towers open and operational beyond June 15,” said Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, an affiliate of the American Association of Airport Executives.