[UPDATED] The US Congress passed legislation to give FAA flexibility to transfer funds to enable the agency to end furloughs of air traffic controllers, at least through the end of the US government’s fiscal year Sept. 30.
The Senate passed the bill late Thursday and the House of Representatives followed Friday. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law. The bill was approved in the Senate without objection by any of the chamber’s 100 members, who are under pressure to end the flight delays that have cascaded across the US this week owing to the furloughs. The House passed the bill by a comfortable 361-41 margin. To comply with budget sequestration—across the board federal government spending reductions that went into law in March—FAA this week had started furloughing most of its 47,000 employees, including air traffic controllers, for one work day every two weeks.
FAA said Thursday that more than 863 flight delays across the US Wednesday “were attributable to staffing reductions.” That followed more than 1,025 delays Tuesday and more than 1,200 delays Monday that FAA attributed to the furloughs.
“Tonight we worked together in the Senate to avoid total gridlock in our aviation system and avert the real harm that rampant delays would cause to our economy and jobs,” Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said late Thursday. “By plugging a hole in the budget and providing the FAA with crucial funds to operate the air traffic control system, we will eliminate flight delays due to inadequate staffing and keep America moving.”
Rockefeller noted the legislation does not change sequestration levels of funding for the rest of the federal government, and even FAA will still be forced to make significant spending reductions. Closures of contract air traffic control towers at smaller US airports, expected to start in June, are not addressed by the legislation. [CLARIFICATION: The bill does not definitively resolve this issue, but appears to provide flexibility that could allow FAA to change course on the tower closures.]
Airlines for America president and CEO Nicholas Calio said in a statement, “Air travel is critical to our economy and to jobs, and this measure ensures that air traffic controllers can return to work, and importantly return efficiency to the national air space.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the bill “will be good news for America’s traveling public,” but cautioned that it would not address many of the other “mindless across-the-board cuts” imposed by sequestration.