GOP, administration spar on FAA sequester cuts

House Republicans sharply questioned Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Michael Huerta on Wednesday over the Obama administration's contention that sequestration will cause delays at airports around the country.

Huerta was appearing at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on the FAA's budget after Congress passed a $63 billion funding bill for the agency last year. 

The agency has said that it will have to furlough its 47,000 workers, including air traffic controllers, at least one day per pay period to make ends meet after the cuts are implemented. 

Republicans expressed skepticism at the hearing that the furloughs or air traffic controllers were necessary, arguing cuts to other parts of the budget were possible.

"Could you find $30 million [per month] savings in a $7 billion budget," Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) asked Huerta, referencing the amount of the FAA's overall $600 million cut that is expected to be taken from its air traffic control operations.

"I believe this is an opportunity for the FAA to go back and review ... contracts," Shuster said. "I've got to believe you're able to find $30 million a month in a $7.4 billion budget, without furloughs or threatening safety." 

Huerta told Shuster than the FAA has make "significant improvements" in reducing its travel budget, an area Republicans have suggested could be reduced.

But he said Wednesday that the agency could not stop its employees from taking trips altogether.

"There is a level of travel that is necessary for us to do our job," he said.

Huerta told lawmakers that the sequestration cuts would take the FAA back to its 2008 levels of spending.

Republicans on the House Transportation Committee argued on Wednesday that would be a welcome development. 

"What's different today than in 2008," Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) asked. " Everything was operating just fine. The sky isn't falling. We aren't going to have more meteors hit because of sequestration."

The ranking Democrat on the panel, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), expressed concern that rural airports would bear the brunt of the sequestration impact because the budget cuts would force the FAA to focus on airports in large cities.

"Sequestration will have dire consequences for rural America, which, in many ways, depends on aviation more than any other part of our country," Rahall said.

"Congress made a commitment in the FAA bill to protect aviation for rural America," he continued. "But I fear that, if the FAA is forced to absorb a $600 million-plus budget cut, the needs of rural America could again be put aside as the FAA struggles to cope with demand in major metropolitan areas, where flight delays could top 90 minutes."

Rahall added that sequestration "seriously threatens the stability that we thought we had achieved by enacting a multi-year FAA reauthorization."  

Huerta told the committee on Wednesday that the FAA would maintain the safety of the aviation system no matter what happens with sequestration. But he said the efficiency of the agency's operations might take a hit.

"We are always going to err on the side of safety," he said. "That could mean we have a [disproportionate] impact on efficiency, but we are always going to focus on safety."