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Senate approves plan to end FAA furloughs, tower closings

Apr. 26, 2013 - 08:24AM   |  
By BART JANSEN and SUSAN DAVIS, USA TODAY   |   Comments
Jets taxi into take-off position as traffic enters and leaves Los Angles International Airport on April 22. Congress is expected to finalize passage of a bill April 25 that would end air-traffic controller furloughs, which have resulted in a plethora of flight delays across the country.
Jets taxi into take-off position as traffic enters and leaves Los Angles International Airport on April 22. Congress is expected to finalize passage of a bill April 25 that would end air-traffic controller furloughs, which have resulted in a plethora of flight delays across the country. (David McNew / Getty Images)

Congress is poised to end air-traffic-control furloughs that have delayed thousands of flights this week.

The Senate unanimously agreed Thursday to allow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to shift $253 million from other accounts so it can end furloughs and keep towers open at smaller airports nationwide. The House is expected to rubber-stamp the legislation Friday.

Lawmakers said the furloughs could end immediately under the bill, but the FAA said it wasn’t clear how quickly the controller schedules could be changed.

“This should prevent the onerous delays that have been occurring and that were only going to get worse as the traveling season reached its peak this summer,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who serves on the appropriations subcommittee for transportation.

In the face of flier, pilot and airline CEO frustration, senators had sought to shift in funding in the FAA to end the furloughs that had stacked up flights from New York to Los Angeles for a fifth straight day.

“This is one of the worst flying experiences ever,” said Evan Shenkin, a New York resident who changed Delta flights twice Wednesday and whose departure was delayed four hours to fly from Boston Logan to JFK airport in New York.

About 40 percent of delays this week were a result of not enough controllers in towers, the FAA said, with 400 delays blamed on staffing Sunday, 1,200 delays blamed on staffing on Monday, 1,025 on Tuesday and 863 on Wednesday.

The total 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.

On Thursday, the FAA warned of delays from staffing shortages at the three New York-area airports and regional centers for Southern California, Chicago and Washington.

Nobody liked the furloughs of about 1,500 controllers a day, which resulted from governmentwide spending cuts that forced the FAA needing to cut $637 million by Sept. 30.

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 spokesman Jay Carney called it a “Band-Aid approach” to the lingering federal spending dispute between Republican lawmakers and the Democratic administration.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said the legislation would allow FAA to keep open the towers, “in a victory for air travelers and communities nationwide.”

USA Today staff writer Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.

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