Senate Reaches Deal to End Air Traffic Control Furloughs

The Senate reached on Thursday a deal aimed to end air control furloughs.

The Senate made a grand step towards ending air traffic controller furloughs that lead to numerous airline flight delays related to last month’s automatic federal spending cuts. Photo: g Tarded/Flickr

Without any debate, senators unanimously passed new legislation which is believed to give the Department of Transportation flexibility to use unspent funds to cover the costs of air traffic controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration, reports Reuters.

The House of Representatives, which is likely to approve the measure, could take it up on Friday, capping a feverish effort by Congress to put an end to the endless flight delays that were snarling traffic at major country’s airports and thus angering travelers.

According to Senate aides, the reached measure would also give the FAA flexibility to keep open nearly 150 “contract towers” at minor airports that are staffed by non-FAA employees who help control takeoffs and landings.

Explicit language to open these towers was not included in the Thursday’s measure, however, it was not clear how the agency would handle the matter.

“I’m delighted that the Senate has just passed a bipartisan bill to resolve a serious problem confronting the American traveling public and our economy,” said Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of a handful of senators who wrote the legislation.

The bill quickly moved in the Senate where legislation often expects its time for weeks or months. It was passed after a day of negotiations between lawmakers and the Obama administration.

If the bill is passed, it would end not only air traffic control furloughs but also a series of Washington battles over budget and taxes that have been waged since 2011.

The issue was the controversial “sequestration” that took effect on March 1, requiring across-the-board spending cuts among most federal agencies.

Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who also took part in the negotiations, applauded its quick passage, but added, “It does nothing for other essential government operations and employees that also desperately need relief.”

According to the FAA, if the legislation is not passed, it would have to furlough about 50,000 employees for up to 11 days through September 30 in attempt to save $637 million that is required by the sequestration. Of those workers, almost 15,000 are full-time air traffic controllers or trainees.

The agency also issued an update that reports more than 863 delays in the system on Wednesday were attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furloughs. Other 2,132 delays were caused by bad weather conditions and other factors, the FAA said, adding that it would work with airlines to minimize delays.

Airlines, many of which are reporting earnings in the course of the current week, have pushed the government to quickly ease the flight delays caused by the furloughs.

Jeff Smisek, chairman and chief executive of United Continental Holdings Inc, said his company’s network operations center was working around the clock to minimize the impact of fewer controllers.

“We are disappointed that the FAA chose this path, that maximizes customer disruptions and damage to airlines instead of choosing a less disruptive method to comply with the budget obligations,” Smisek said on a conference call.

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