The air traffic control tower at Reagan National in Washington, DC (image: Brendan Hoffman/Getty)
Flight delays caused by the furloughs of air-traffic controllers are coming to an end.
The House cleared legislation Friday that allows the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to shift $253 million from other accounts to end furloughs that began Sunday. The vote was 361-41. The Senate approved it Thursday night.
The chairman of the transportation committee, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., supported the bill to "stop this needless pain on the American traveling public and the economy."
Lawmakers said the furloughs could end immediately after President Obama signs the bill into law. But the FAA said it wasn't clear how quickly the controller schedules could be changed to fully staff control towers.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama would sign the bill, though he wasn't sure when. "It will be good news for America's traveling public if Congress spares them the unnecessary delays that we've seen," he said.
About 40% of delays this week were a result of not enough controllers in towers, the FAA said, with 1,200 delays blamed on staffing on Monday, 1,025 on Tuesday and 863 on Wednesday.
The number of delays, including those for weather, more than tripled from a year earlier, from 2,795 to 8,804 this week, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing furloughed workers.
Nobody liked the furloughs of about 1,500 controllers a day, which resulted from $85 billion in government-wide spending cuts that forced the FAA into needing to cut $637 million by Sept. 30.
The second-ranking Democrat in the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, opposed the legislation by citing an editorial in Friday's USA TODAY that urged Congress to find alternatives to the meat-axe approach of cutting federal spending.
"Flight delays are just the tip of the iceberg, visible above the waterline for most Americans, and as time goes on without a big balanced solution to replace the sequester, more of that iceberg will surface," Hoyer said. "More Americans will be negatively affected."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said they couldn't avoid furloughs to shave about $220 million and the closure of towers at small airports to save $25 million, along with curbing training, travel and information-technology spending.
The White House signaled Wednesday it was prepared to fix just the FAA, which Carney called a "Band-Aid approach" to the lingering federal spending dispute between Republican lawmakers and the Democratic administration.
Airport executives voiced some disappointment that a grant program for runway repairs would be raided to end the furloughs. The legislation allows FAA to shift money to end furloughs from the Airport Improvement Program, which has an estimated $400 million in unused funding, which had been exempted from spending cuts.
David Edwards, chairman of Airports Council International -- North America, acknowledged that continuing flight delays would have a devastating effect on the economy. But Edwards, who is CEO of Greenville-Spartanburg Airport District, said raiding the grant program is unprecedented and doesn't take into account the safety and security improvements made with grants.
The bill doesn't specify how FAA should spend the $253 million, and the fate of towers at small airports remains uncertain.
The FAA planned to close 149 towers staffed by contract workers on June 15, although local communities offered to pay to keep about 50 open. The towers are at airports with fewer than 150,000 landings and departures a year and 10,000 commercial landings and departures.
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said the bill gives the agency the flexibility to keep the towers open.
"I would encourage the secretary to do that for the safety and for the economy of our local communities," he said.
Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, said his group will lobby for tower funding.
"We're going to work with the FAA to work on a solution here that will keep these towers open, so they will provide the safety benefits that control towers provide the traveling public," Dickerson said.