Air Controller Furloughs Won’t Risk Safety, FAA Chief Says

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg News) -

Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta defended his decision to furlough about 10 percent of U.S. air-traffic controllers, telling lawmakers he had no choice under government-wide budget cuts and that airline passengers won’t be harmed.

“It will have no effect on safety, but what will suffer is efficiency,” Huerta told members of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agency’s budget.

Huerta’s testimony comes on the fourth day of flight delays after the forced days off began, helping reignite a feud over which political party deserves blame for fiscal policies that began after Republicans took over the House in 2011.

The furloughs were a response to automatic budget cuts that were the penalty agreed to by President Obama and Congress in failed debt-reduction talks.

Flight delays abated somewhat Wednesday after waits of as long as two hours Tuesday at the busiest U.S. airports, including Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia, both serving New York City. Three other airports had flight delays Tuesday that were due in part to the controller furloughs, according to FlightAware.com, an industry data provider.

While delays were reported Wednesday at some key airports, they were shorter than earlier in the week. At Los Angeles International Airport, delays were about 45 minutes, as of about 9 a.m. local time. Delays earlier Wednesday were 26 minutes at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Both were due to staffing shortages, according to the FAA’s travel website.

Delays more than doubled in the first three days of the furloughs compared with the same period a year ago, with 5,809 flights late from April 21 through Tuesday, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, which cited FAA data.

Its tally Tuesday included 2,000 delays – of which the FAA attributed 1,025 to staffing reductions. The rest were due to weather and other factors, the agency said in a statement.

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., told Huerta the agency’s furloughs reflect an “imperial attitude” in Obama’s administration that is “disgusting.”

He questioned the FAA’s decision to begin the furloughs without telling Congress how extensive they might be.

“Not a word, not a breath,” Rogers said. “You didn’t forewarn us this was coming. You didn’t advise us how to handle it.”

Huerta testified that he has little choice but to look to traffic-controller salaries as the FAA seeks $637 million in cuts. Seventy percent of the agency’s operating budget is in payroll, and 40 percent of that amount goes to air-traffic controllers, he said.

Asked whether he could concentrate the furloughs at less-congested airports, he said the FAA has to avoid picking “winners and losers” among airlines by benefiting those operating from larger hubs.

Republican lawmakers are accusing Obama’s administration of inventing a crisis to serve its interests in a budget-cut fight, while Democrats say Republicans ignored the consequences of the policy many of them supported that requires the spending reductions.

The FAA’s decision-making has been guided by the “failure of Congress to replace ill-advised across-the-board cuts” with a broader debt-reduction deal, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the appropriations panel, said.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., questioned whether the agency received detailed guidance from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, as has been provided in past across-the-board cuts in the 1980s and 1990s.

“We received no direction from the OMB,” Huerta responded.

The FAA’s decisions have been a “mathematical exercise” designed to reach the required reduction within the portions of its budget with the least impact on safety, Huerta said. He said the FAA has already cut employee training and travel.