Congress looking for quick fix to flight delays

Democrats and Republicans both say the other party is to blame for flight delays as budget cuts force the FAA to furlough air traffic controllers.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate leaders are frantically trying to pull together a plan to alleviate widespread airline flight delays - brought about by last month's automatic federal spending cuts - with legislation that could be voted upon as early as Thursday.

The activity is focused on finding ways to eliminate or ease forced furloughs of air traffic controllers prompted by the spending cuts. The House of Representatives could vote soon after but leaders in that chamber first want to see what the Senate produces, fearing a retreat on this issue could open the door to easing other budget cuts.

Related: Summer of discontent? How to cope with more airline delays

One option senators are exploring is attaching legislation to an unrelated Internet sales tax bill currently being debated, a Senate aide said on Thursday.

They are also looking at stand-alone legislation, and are considering giving the Department of Transportation flexibility to transfer existing department funds so that air traffic controllers' salaries can be fully paid, and those periodic furloughs can be stopped.

Another approach would be simply declaring controllers as "essential" personnel who could not be furloughed.

Lawmakers are eager to find a fix before they head out of town for next week's congressional recess. They are concerned about deepening public resentment over the delays caused by the furloughs of controllers.

Airline passengers have grown increasingly irritated over the past week with delays at major hubs like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Some have reported multi-hour delays in takeoff times and planes being put in holding patterns in the air, with many pilots blaming furloughs for landing delays.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association on Thursday said that many of the 1,978 controller trainees are now working full shifts by themselves to help cover staffing shortages.

And airline executives this week ratcheted up their complaints. "This is government not working - capital letters, exclamation point - when we're sitting here holding the traveling public hostage in the midst of sequestration," JetBlue CEO Dave Barger said on a conference call on Thursday.

The FAA has said it had no alternative to furloughing controllers this week after Congress failed to come up with a budget deal that would have averted the $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts.

At the same time, the FAA has emphasized that passenger safety is not at risk. Airlines for America, the trade organization for U.S. airlines, also said on Thursday that the furloughs have not created a safety issue.

According to the Senate aide, the White House is open to Congress dealing promptly with the FAA's funding problem. But the aide said that no decisions had yet been finalized on how to move an FAA measure forward quickly.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday proposed replacing the budget reductions by claiming savings from the decrease of war spending, but congressional Republicans have rejected the proposal, saying counting war savings is an accounting gimmick.

A more likely fix may be one of the bipartisan pieces of legislation that would give the DOT flexibility to move around funds to pay air traffic controllers.

"These are simply irresponsible cuts that have real and detrimental impacts on the traveling public, on the airline industry, on the hospitality industry and they will cause widespread delays to the air traffic system," Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said on the Senate floor. Collins is behind one of the legislative proposals.

While Republicans are joining the effort for a quick fix, many have been skeptical about whether the White House and FAA are taking advantage of flexibility they already have.

Republicans have accused the Obama administration of maximizing the disruptions to try to shift budget blame on Republicans - an allegation the administration has denied. Republicans have created a Twitter hashtag, #Obamaflightdelays, for people to complain about the delays.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, on Thursday sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking for internal documents discussing budget flexibilities. The DOT did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

However, a congressional aide involved in the original automatic spending cut legislation that was enacted in August 2011 told Reuters that the administration cannot under the law shift money from outside accounts to fund the air traffic controller account.

SEQUESTRATION FALLOUT

The FAA has said it will have to furlough 47,000 employees for up to 11 days through September 30 in order to save $637 million that is required by the "sequestration," automatic spending cuts that started on March 1 for most federal agencies.

Of those 47,000 workers, almost 15,000 are full-time air traffic controllers or trainees.

The FAA issued an update that said more than 863 delays in the system on Wednesday were attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furloughs.

Another 2,132 delays were attributed to weather and other factors, the FAA said. The agency said it would work with airlines to minimize delays.

Airlines, many of which are reporting earnings this week, have pushed the government to quickly ease the flight delays caused by the furloughs.

Jeff Smisek, chairman and chief executive of United Continental Holdings Inc, said his company's network operations center is working around the clock to minimize the impact of fewer controllers.

"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," Smisek said on a conference call.

CLOSED-DOOR TALKS

Thursday's flurry of activity in Washington followed a meeting late on Wednesday with the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to discuss what steps Congress could take to provide the FAA with the flexibility it needs to cancel the furloughs.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, and Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, are considering "a few options" that came out of that conversation, but are not ready to discuss details yet, a congressional aide said.

If a fix were to pass the Senate, it is not clear how the House would respond, especially if it is attached to the Internet sales tax bill, which has faced fierce opposition from many online merchants, including eBay Inc and Overstock.com Inc.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat who is shepherding the Internet sales tax bill through the Senate, told Reuters on Thursday, "We are working on" ways to deal with an FAA funding fix.

But he added that senators have to consider whether exempting some FAA programs from the tough spending-cut law would be unfair to other agencies and their constituents, who also want to get out from under sequestration.

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