Lawmakers head for flights home after voting to end delays at airports

Lawmakers headed to catch flights at Washington, D.C. Ronald Reagan National Airport on Friday after passing a bill to end furloughs for air traffic controllers that caused flight delays across the country this week.

Many of them were unsure when they got there if their flights would leave on time, or would be delayed due to the sequester like thousands of other commercial flights in recent days.

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“I haven’t checked yet. It wasn’t delayed coming here. I honestly don’t know. I need to look over here (at a flight information monitor),” Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) told The Hill as he walked toward a security checkpoint.

Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) had a more definitive answer. He tweeted from the airport:

"I vote to shift funds to stop FAA furloughs and now U.S. AIR says my plane home is delayed. Oh the irony!"

The departure boards at Reagan did not register many delays on Friday. The arrival boards displayed more delays. That situation was corroborated by the website FlightAware.com, which reported flights departing Reagan Airport on Friday were not delayed, but airplanes arriving from New York area airports were backed up about an hour.

Guthrie also voted for the bill that was passed by Congress on Friday afternoon, giving the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the flexibility to make adjustments to its budgets and avoid furloughing key staff. Guthrie said he supported the legislation because he wanted to spare airline passengers from the effects of the sequester.

“Hopefully the president will use the flexibility we gave him to make sure that people’s lives are disrupted as little as possible - given that we’re cutting 85 billion dollars from the budget,” Guthrie said. “I think we need to implement these in ways, not that cause the most stress to the American people, but that cause the least.”

The House approved the Reducing Flight Delays Act in an overwhelming 361-41 vote, just a day after the Senate approved the same bill by unanimous consent. The president is expected to sign it.

Prior to the passage of the FAA legislation, the agency had insisted it could not exempt air traffic controllers from furloughs because the sequester required federal agencies to make across-the-board cuts to their 2013 budgets.

The sequester went into effect on March 1, as the agreed-upon result of Congress and the White House being unable to come to a long-term deficit-reduction deal. The sequester mandates that approximately $85.4 billion be cut from the federal budget in fiscal 2013, as well as similar reductions for the following nine years.

The FAA's percentage of the sequester's 2013 spending reduction was $600 million.

The agency began furloughing its 47,000 employees on Sunday to meet the budget cut marker.

The furloughs included 15,000 air traffic controllers who work for the FAA, which resulted in a reduction in the number of people monitoring flights by about 10 percent.

The FAA had warned for months that the sequester would result in flight delays, but when the cutbacks officially started this week, the FAA instituted a "traffic management" plan to deal with reduced staffing. Under the system, flights that were otherwise ready to depart were held back to manage air traffic congestion.

Airlines responded to the delays with a campaign to convince their passengers to blame Washington for the flight delays instead of themselves, amplifying pressure on Congress to reach an agreement.

While the House and Senate lurched toward such a deal on Thursday, airlines reported that more than 19,000 people had sent comments to Congress and the Obama administration calling for an end to the flight delays.

Those complaints were not lost on lawmakers, many of whom were at the airport Friday.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield Jr. (D-N.C.) said he was more concerned about his constituents facing flight delays than he was worried about his own travel plans being interrupted.

“I don’t think my personal situation was a factor in that decision [to vote for the FAA bill on Friday],” Butterfield told The Hill. “I have great sympathy for the thousands of people who have been affected by the delays and I want to repeal all of sequestration. The American people are beginning to feel the pain associated with sequestration. We’ve got to make some strategic cuts, but not across the board cuts like this. This doesn’t work. “

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) told The Hill on Friday that it was too early to tell when air towers would be able to get back to full staffing.  The association said it was just relieved the furloughs would be ending before the end of the 2013 fiscal year in September.

“After just one week of furloughs, it is abundantly clear that a fully staffed air traffic control workforce is necessary for our national airspace system to operate at full capacity,” NATCA said in a statement after the House vote on Friday.

NATCA added that the air traffic controllers who were furloughed this week will be glad to get back to work.

“The nation’s air traffic controllers and other aviation safety professionals take great pride in their work and want nothing more than to be in their towers and radar facilities, working each and every flight,” the association said.

For his part, Butterfield said the dust-up that was caused by the FAA furloughs increased his desire to “repeal the whole [sequester] and…start over.”

But Congress opted on Friday to only reverse the cutbacks for the FAA.

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), while waiting in a security line at Reagan, said the only reason FAA legislation was necessary was because of the Obama administration’s handling of the sequester.

“I think the FAA did a horrible job,” DeSantis said. “They had 18 months to prepare for this and they’re trying to inflict this political theater.”

Democrats countered that the FAA fix was a “Band-Aid” solution for the sequester they blame Republicans for insisting upon.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the FAA bill "would be good news" for travelers.

Carney said Obama would sign the bill to end the FAA furloughs because "this is causing unnecessary harm to travelers around the country."

But he said the legislation is "no more than a temporary Band-Aid that fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester's mindless, across-the-board cuts."

Carney added that a piecemeal approach is "not the answer" and he called on Congress to "show as much concern" for others who are impacted by the sequester.

Amie Parnes and Noura Alfadl-Andreasson contributed to this report