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Congress relents on furloughed air-traffic controllers

By: Scripps Howard News Service
April 29, 2013 Updated: April 30, 2013 at 2:20 pm
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Maybe it was public anger over the more than 8,000 flights delayed or canceled because of various reasons this week, as of Thursday - more than triple from the same period last year, according to one tally - that prompted Congress to act with unaccustomed speed.

Or maybe it was because, as the cynics suggest, that the congressionally mandated furlough of 1,500 air traffic controllers a day threatened to disrupt Congress' own travel plans for a week long break from Friday evening to Monday morning, May 6, to rest up from the 12 days the lawmakers were in session this month.

Cynicism will rarely steer you far wrong in Washington but, for whatever reason, Congress hastily voted to allow the Federal Aviation Administration to end the 10 percent cut in hours and pay of its 15,000 controllers as well as other employees essential to the functioning of our air travel system.

The FAA, like every other federal agency, was the victim of Congress' and the Obama administration's ill-advised attempt to force itself to deal with the budget deficit by imposing 10 years of across-the-board budget cuts - the 'sequester ' in Washington-speak - that Congress thought would never come to pass.

The sequester did come to pass and Capitol Hill is now swarming with government and industry lobbyists seeking to carve out exceptions for their favored programs, including airline lobbyists urging full funding be restored to the FAA.

Congressional reaction to public ire over the delays was basically: Who? Me?

'How come you didn't tell us about this beforehand, the sequester, impact on the layoffs, the furloughs? Not a word. Not a breath? ' House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., demanded of FAA officials this week.

With all due respect, Mr. Chairman, what did you think was going to happen when the FAA was forced to cut $637 million out of its budget?

And, as The Associated Press' Fact Check points out, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA officials have been warning of major delays since February, including at a White House news conference.

'Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco and others could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because we have fewer controllers on staff. Delays in these major airports will ripple across the country, ' LaHood said at the White House on Feb. 22, 2013.

Some members of Congress have suggested the FAA could come up with the money to fully staff the air-traffic-control system by dipping into other accounts in its $16 billion annual budget, but the sequester law specifically prohibits juggling accounts.

The Senate, without a recorded vote, said the FAA could raid its other accounts for the $253 million to maintain full staffing and operations until Sept. 30.

Now the lawmakers can take their vacation and the public can go about its business with only the usual delays, but this whole thing seems unnecessary. - Scripps Howard News Service

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