Should Air Traffic Controllers Be Included In Furloughs?

As air travelers grumble about delayed flights, congressional Republicans have a new talking point: It's all President Obama's fault. They argue that he could make cuts in less critical parts of the FAA budget, but wants to inconvenience the public to force Congress to undo sequestration.

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Air travelers are growing less and less happy. Automatic budget cuts are now leading to hundreds of flight delays, about half of all delayed flights this week.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Up until this point, the effects of the sequester have been scattered and hard to pin down: hiring freezes, delayed park openings. But then the furloughs of air traffic controllers the Federal Aviation Administration had been threatening for months hit and, bam, the sequester got real, real fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This morning, the sequester is walloping airports again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, actually, I just ran in there and I counted 41. There are 39 delays, and actually two cancellations.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Arrivals were delayed an average of 77 minutes last night.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Almost half of the incoming and outgoing flights here are delayed at least 30 minutes, and some, sadly, more than an hour.

KEITH: Pilots made announcements while planes sat delayed on the tarmac, blaming the sequester and Congress. Just a few weeks ago, Republicans gleefully accused the Obama administration of exaggerating the sequester effects. This week, there's a new message.

REPRESENTATIVE BILL SHUSTER: This administration is implementing sequestration to cause the most pain on the traveling public that it possibly can.

KEITH: Bill Shuster is a Republican from Pennsylvania and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He says the FAA should be furloughing other employees, not the controllers.

SHUSTER: We can do this in a smarter way. This administration has the flexibility to do that, and they're not doing it.

KEITH: The FAA continues to insist it isn't making travelers miserable on purpose, and doesn't have the budget flexibility to avoid the furloughs that are cascading into flight delays. Michael Huerta, the director of the FAA, testified before a House appropriations subcommittee yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

MICHAEL HUERTA: These are all bad choices. I'll be the first to acknowledge that. But in order to comply with the guidelines of the sequester law, we have to take these actions.

REPRESENTATIVE HAL ROGERS: I wish you'd told us earlier.

KEITH: That last voice you heard was Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and chairman of the appropriations committee. He seemed skeptical of Huerta's explanation, and none too happy with the flight delays.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

ROGERS: And then to turn around and try to blame the difficulties in flying on the Congress, having not informed us of what you planned to do, is unacceptable.

KEITH: The ranking Democrat on the appropriations committee, Nita Lowey from New York, batted back the idea that Congress hadn't been warned.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

REPRESENTATIVE NITA LOWEY: Frankly, my colleagues, it's mystifying to me that some are surprised by these delays or blame the FAA for Congress' failure.

KEITH: But by the end of the day - at least in some corners of the Capitol - talk of blame was replaced with talk of solutions - not for the whole sequester, or even the whole FAA budget, but specifically for air traffic controllers. Republican Senator John Thune and Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller - who chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation - met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

SECRETARY RAY LAHOOD: There are too many delays, and common, ordinary citizens are being affected and I'm grateful to Chairman Rockefeller and Senator Thune for their interest in trying to be helpful.

KEITH: Exactly what Lahood meant by helpful isn't entirely clear, but it would likely involve some kind of legislation. Rockefeller and LaHood kept details to themselves.

LAHOOD: I think with your leadership, as always, hopefully we can find a fix.

KEITH: That was the transportation secretary, praising Senator Rockefeller. When asked how soon it might happen, Rockefeller said: soon.

SENATOR JAY ROCKEFELLER: We're working as fast as we possibly can, and we're sure running out of time, which actually helps.

KEITH: Both the House and the Senate leave for recess this weekend. It's not clear whether the two chambers could pass a fix - whatever form it takes - in the remaining two days. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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