Senators file legislation to end air traffic controller furloughs blamed for delays

A bipartisan group of senators said Wednesday that they were introducing legislation to stop air traffic controller furloughs that have been blamed for more than 2,000 delayed flights this week.

The group, led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), said the legislation would allow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to move funds between its accounts to prevent furloughs for its 15,000 air traffic controllers.

The agency has said it has been forced to furlough air traffic controllers and slow airline traffic thus far because the sequester law requires it to make across-the-board cuts. The FAA is required to cut its 2013 spending by $600 million because of the sequester.

Klobuchar and Hoeven said it was critical to give the agency the ability to make its budget cuts in other ways that do not directly affect commercial airline passengers.

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“Air traffic controllers are critical to ensuring families and business travelers can get to their destinations safely and efficiently,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “This legislation will give the FAA the flexibility it needs to keep air traffic controllers working to keep passengers safe, prevent flight delays, and make sure our aviation system can continue to be the strongest in the world.”

“America’s economy runs on transportation, including air travel, and delays like we’re seeing this week are disrupting commerce and causing real inconvenience for travelers,” Hoeven added. “Our bill addresses the issue directly and in a bipartisan way by giving the secretary of transportation the flexibility he needs to prioritize his budget and put air traffic controllers back on the job for America’s traveling public.”

The Klobuchar-Hoeven legislation has been dubbed the Dependable Air Service Act. 

The flight delays at major airports that began on Sunday touched off a firestorm in Washington. 

Republicans accused the Obama administration of purposely delaying flights to inconvenience airline passengers to score political points in the fight over the sequester.

The across-the-board budget cuts are the result of the inability of Congress and the White House to reach a deal on a budget for the year. The cuts were put in place in 2011 to force lawmakers to compromise, but the White House insisted on raising taxes in a new budget deal, and Republicans refused to consider any increases.

Even in announcing a bipartisan effort to end the air traffic controllers' furloughs on Wednesday, Hoeven insisted the FAA budget could’ve been cut in other places.

“Clearly, there is room in the DOT [Department of Transportation] discretionary accounts to mitigate some of the $206 million reduction to air traffic controllers,” he said.

The White House and Democrats countered that the sequester, which was approved by both chambers of Congress, requires across-the-board spending cuts. 

"Let's be clear. The sequester was a law written by Congress. Congress wrote the law. Congress passed the law. Members of Congress should read the law," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday afternoon. 

The announcement of a potential solution to end the air traffic controller furloughs was immediately cheered by aviation industry groups.

“This piece of legislation will allow the FAA to transfer funds between areas in the Department of Transportation budget,” the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said in a statement. “It will also help mitigate the delays that passengers have been experiencing in the last few days.”

The pilots’ association added that it was important to pass the legislation to end the furloughs to minimize the inconvenience of airline passengers.

“These delays and the subsequent passenger discontent could have deep and long-term effects on the aviation industry and the economy as a whole,” ALPA said. “We urge the speedy passage and implementation of this bill, so that our partners in aviation safety and security, the furloughed air traffic controllers, can be brought back to the control towers as quickly as possible.”

The FAA has instituted a "traffic management" plan that calls for holding some flights that would otherwise be cleared to take off or land to deal with the staffing reductions.

The agency says that it will have to operate with a staff reduced by about 10 percent from now until September because of the sequester.

The bill to end the furloughs is cosponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.).

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