Airline lobby: Air travel should not be 'political football'

"Air travel is too important a driver to our economy and jobs to be treated like a political football, and we are urging Congress and the Administration to work together to avoid cuts that will impact its efficiency," Calio said in a statement.

Calio made similar comments in speech on Wednesday to the American Bar Association (ABA). He argued at the ABA's Air and Space Law Forum that the Obama administration should look for other ways to cut its budget without furloughing air traffic controllers.

"If there is no deal, we urge the FAA to look to implement cuts that will have the least impact on our customers and shippers," Calio continued in the speech. "It’s ironic … that the very people who fund two-thirds of the FAA’s budget — customers and shippers — through $12 billion in taxes and fees — are the ones who could face the greatest hardship under Secretary LaHood’s proposed cuts." 

The FAA stands to have to cut $600 million from its 2013 budget if Congress does not reach a deal to avert the sequester by Friday.

The agency has said it would have no choice but to furlough its 47,000 workers, which includes air traffic controllers, in response to the cuts.

The FAA has predicted that air traffic controllers would be furloughed at least one day per pay period for the rest of the year under the sequester.

The Obama administration has argued that the FAA will have to juggle resources to maintain the safety of the national aviation system while make the budget cuts the sequester will require.

"We are always going to err on the side of safety," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told lawmakers at House committee hearing on Wednesday. "That could mean we have a [disproportionate] impact on efficiency, but we are always going to focus on safety."

Republicans have expressed doubt about the administration's air travel delay warnings, arguing like Calio that the FAA can make cuts to its budget in other areas that will not affect air traffic controllers.

"What's different today than in 2008," Rep. Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesTrump promises to unveil infrastructure plan after tax reform Trump admin launches program to help veterans become commercial pilots GOP lawmaker: White House, Congress have begun crafting infrastructure bill MORE (R-Mo.) asked Huerta when he told lawmakers the sequestration cuts would take the FAA back to its 2008 spending levels.

"Everything was operating just fine," Graves said of the aviation system five years ago. "The sky isn't falling. We aren't going to have more meteors hit because of sequestration."

-This story was updated with new information at 6:03 p.m.