House, Senate agree on fix to end ATC furloughs

AOPA a strong advocate for pilots, National Airspace System on Capitol Hill

April 25, 2013

Update: AOPA President Craig Fuller has released a statement praising Congress for its short-term solution to end air traffic controller furloughs.

The House and Senate have agreed on a measure that would give the FAA the budgetary flexibility needed to end air traffic controller furloughs and possibly keep contract towers open beyond June 15. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill.

AOPA has been working behind the scenes on Capitol Hill to educate many members of Congress on the importance of aviation and the vital role air traffic controllers serve in keeping the National Airspace System operating safely and efficiently.

The move allows the FAA to tap unobligated Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds, and grants additional flexibility for the agency to transfer other funding within its budget, up to $253 million, to prevent reduced operations and staffing during fiscal year 2013. (This will not take away money from airport projects that have already been granted AIP funding.) Some in Congress believe this gives the FAA enough flexibility to also keep contract towers open.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) says “language provides the FAA with more than enough funding flexibility to protect the 149 contract control towers slated for closure as well.”

Long road to an agreement

This after members of the House and Senate took the FAA to task over the furloughs on April 24.

“Anytime a bureaucracy is forced to cut, they will find the one thing that the people of America want most, and that’s what they will cut,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said April 24 during a floor speech. “And there’s no better example of this than the FAA.”

Also on April 24, the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies appropriation subcommittee held a hearing on the FAA’s fiscal 2014 appropriations in which representatives took FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to task for the ATC delays. The hearing was widely attended by subcommittee members, with a rare coming together of at least seven members on both sides of the aisle, posing tough questions and increased scrutiny about the FAA’s decision to close contract towers and furlough air traffic controllers.

Subcommittee Chairman Tom Latham (R-Iowa) said the safety of those flying could not fall victim to “political posturing” and asked if the safety of the National Airspace System was being compromised. Huerta responded that while the system’s efficiency has been reduced, safety is still a top priority.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) stated that he found it shocking that the FAA did not outline its plan to furlough 15,000 air traffic controllers to stakeholders before last Tuesday, and that he was appalled that the FAA disclosed details less than a week before it took effect. He went on to slam the administration as a whole over how the budget cuts have played out and told Huerta, “this imperial attitude on the part of the administration—and you’re the more recent example of that imperialism—is disgusting.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) also focused his scrutiny on sequestration and controller furloughs, questioning whether the federal government is really saving in FAA accounts by imposing furloughs and cuts to the contract tower program.

AOPA working behind the scenes

For months, AOPA has been working with members of Congress on legislative measures to mitigate the impact of the budget cuts. In addition, AOPA and the aviation community have sent letters to the White House, lobbied the FAA, and had bills introduced in Congress in an attempt to prevent the controller furloughs and contract tower closures. In order to resolve legal challenges to the contract tower closures, FAA delayed closing contract towers until June 15, but continued with controller furloughs on April 22.

This week, the association met with members of Congress and their staff from early morning to late evening in an effort to ensure they understand the mounting frustration and safety issues involved with a National Airspace System that is daily growing less and less efficient.

A legislative fix became the best option after a federal judge this week denied a request from two airline associations for an emergency stay on controller furloughs.

“We are working hard with members of Congress to enact a solution that will return our National Airspace System back to the world-class system it was before the budget cuts and furloughs,” Howerton said. “Our goal is to keep our members flying safely and efficiently.”