FAA Cancels Furloughs; Flights Back to Normal Sunday

Saturday, 27 Apr 2013 06:47 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Saturday it had suspended all employee furloughs and that it expects the U.S. air travel system to return to normal by Sunday evening Eastern Time.

The suspension follows passage on Friday of a bill allowing the agency to shift money within its budget to halt furloughs of air-traffic controllers that started April 21.

President Barack Obama says the congressional fix for widespread flight delays is an irresponsible way to govern, but he's prepared to sign the legislation that lawmakers fast-tracked.

The furloughs, prompted by automatic budget cuts, caused thousands of flight delays and hundreds of cancellations throughout the week. The FAA said in a statement on Saturday that it expects staffing to return to normal levels over the next 24 hours.

Airports around the country were reporting that flights were arriving and departing on time at 1 p.m. EDT, with the exception of San Francisco, where arrivals were delayed 44 minutes on average because of construction, the FAA said.

Earlier on Saturday, President Obama chided Republicans in his weekly radio address for approving a plan to ease air-traffic delays while leaving untouched budget cuts that affect children and the elderly.

Congressman Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a Republican from Pennsylvania, said the FAA could have complied with the automatic budget cuts, known as sequester, in a way that avoided inconveniencing travelers.

Shuster says the Obama administration allowed Federal Aviation Administration furloughs this past week to linger as part of a political ploy to replace the nation's sequestration cuts with a more Democrat-supported tax plan.

“There are some in the Obama administration who thought inflicting pain on the public would give the president more leverage to avoid making necessary spending cuts and to impose more tax hikes on the American people,” said Shuster, who chairs the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee. The Pennsylvania Republican made his comments while giving the GOP's response to President Barack Obama's Saturday morning radio address.

But while both Obama and Shuster agreed that the sequester could have been tempered with a more targeted plan than the one that was implemented, Shuster criticized the sequester overall and how the FAA put cuts into play.

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“From the get-go, the FAA could have acted on its own without inflicting pain on the public,” Shuster said. “They could have taken into account air patterns, but instead, the FAA imposed blanket, across-the-board furloughs.”

On Friday, Congress overwhelmingly approved legislation that allows the FAA to withdraw the furloughs. However, before that, the FAA instituted massive furloughs on its air traffic controllers, resulting in coast-to-coast flight delays that infuriated travelers.

“Rather than fix the problem immediately, the Obama administration spent days saying its hands were tied,” Shuster said.

He noted that the Republican party helped keep the heat on about the issue, including launching a massive Twitter campaign, with the hashtag #obamaflightdelays, to allow travelers to vent their anger.

On Friday, House members voted 361-41 to allow the FAA to drop the furloughs. Their vote followed a Thursday night ballot in the Senate, which didn't need a roll call to agree to get the air traffic controllers back to work.

Obama complained about the sequester himself in his Saturday morning address.

“We can’t just keep putting Band-Aids on every cut,” he said. “It’s not a responsible way to govern. There is only one way to truly fix the sequester: by replacing it before it causes further damage.”

Republicans Friday complained that the air traffic controller furloughs were allowed to happen because the Obama administration wants to use such disruptions in a political power play.

"The president has an obligation to implement these cuts in a way that respects the American people, rather than using them for political leverage," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Shuster, in his Saturday morning address, agreed.

“There are some in the Obama administration who thought inflicting pain on the public would give the president more leverage to avoid making necessary spending cuts and to impose more tax hikes on the American people,” said Shuster.

Obama, in his address, said the sequester continues to affect other programs like Head Start and Meals on Wheels, as well as cuts military families off from services.

But Shuster said the Obama administration always had the flexibility to stop the FAA furloughs.

“This episode is yet another demonstration of why we need to replace the president’s sequester with smarter, more responsible cuts,” he said. “The American people deserve better, and leaders in Washington have an obligation to respect your time and money.”

The FAA isn't the first agency to get relief from the furloughs. Lawmakers have approved a spending bill that gives more money for meat and poultry inspectors. In addition, Attorney General Eric Holder noted there were extra funds in that bill to allow the Justice Department to avoid furloughs. The Transportation Security Administration has also been able to avoid furloughs.

The Federal Aviation Agency had hoped to achieve about a third of its $637 million in cuts by furloughing nearly all workers, including air traffic controllers, for one day out of every two weeks.

Obama and other Democrats want to roll back the whole sequester. However, Republicans, while opposing the sequester, don't want the Obama administration's plans for spending cuts and increasing taxes.

Obama on Saturday reiterated that he believes the sequester was a bad idea all along, and now “Republicans claimed victory when the sequester first took effect, and now they’ve decided it was a bad idea all along.”

However, he said, the cuts Republicans proposed would have left agencies like the FAA to “suffer cuts three times deeper.”

“A couple weeks ago, I put forward a budget that replaces the next several years of these dumb cuts with smarter cuts; reforms our tax code to close wasteful special interest loopholes; and invests in things like education, research, and manufacturing that will create new jobs right now,” Obama said.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


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