GOP lawmakers decry FAA sequester furlough notices

Republicans are criticizing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for issuing furlough notices to its workers following the implementation of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

The notices are premature because the FAA has not detailed to Congress why it believes the furloughs cannot be avoided, the top Republicans on the House and Senate Transportation committees said Thursday in a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

“It is our understanding that FAA employees were notified Tuesday of an intended ‘Save Money’ furlough for up to eleven (11) work days, beginning on or about April 7,” the lawmakers, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) wrote. “We are disappointed that this is the route that the FAA and the Administration has chosen to take, rather than sharpening their pencils and finding cost savings in other areas."

The GOP transportation leaders argued that the FAA has ignored their request for more details about their sequestration plans while the Obama administration was issuing warnings to travelers before the cuts that their flights might be delayed.

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“On February 25, 2013, we formally requested information regarding FAA’s plan for sequestration,” the lawmakers wrote. “That letter went unanswered similar to previous requests.  In hearings of both the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on February 27, and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Tuesday of this week, we heard a lot of rhetoric on the sequester, but no real answers.”

The sequestration order requires federal agencies to cut their budgets by approximately 9 percent to achieve $85 billion in cuts to 2013 spending. 

Prior to its implementation, the FAA said flights could be delayed at major airports throughout the country because it would have to furlough air traffic controllers for at least one day per pay period because of the budget cuts.

Shuster and Thune frequently accused the agency of overstating the impact of the sequester, arguing that the FAA could make cuts in other places in its budget to avoid impacting airline passengers.

“A review of FAA spending over the past several years has exposed several areas ripe for belt-tightening at the FAA,” they wrote to LaHood. “These areas include, but are not limited to: a yearly travel budget for FAA employees of $179 million; a fleet of 46 aircraft that costs $143 million a year to maintain; a 41 percent, or $3 billion budget increase since 2002, even though domestic flights are down 27 percent from 2000 traffic levels; and clear mismanagement and waste on Air Traffic Control modernization contracts.”

The lawmakers attributed their disbelief of the necessity of air traffic controller furloughs to being “continuously rebuffed” by the DOT and FAA in their requests for information about the agency’s sequestration plans.

Thune and Shuster said the information that has been provided by the Obama administration has left them with “more questions than answers.

“We know that FAA spends millions of taxpayer dollars to send employees to conferences,” they wrote. “Has all conference spending been eliminated under the sequester? We know that FAA plans to shut down a significant number of contract towers, even though the contract tower program has continuously proven to be cost effective. How was this choice made? Were all other service contracts examined for waste and cost overruns before choosing to make cuts to an economically sound program?”

The FAA declined to comment on the GOP lawmaker’s letter Thursday.

FAA Admiministrator Michael Huerta told told lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee the week before the sequester was implemented that the agency would have to make equal cuts to all areas of its budget.

"Under sequestration our flexibility is very limited because we must cut proportionately from all affected accounts," Huerta said. "We can’t move money around and we have limited flexibility to choose what it is that we’re able to cut."

Huerta added that the sequester did not make exemptions for the importance of FAA workers to the agency's safety missions.

"Unlike a government shutdown, under the sequester, almost all of our employees would be affected, even what we would traditionally call 'essential personnel,'" he said. "The vast majority of our employees, including 'essential workers' would have to be furloughed."

-This story was updated with new information at 6:15 p.m.