Risk of Flight Delays Returns as FAA Weighs Furloughs
September 18, 2013
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  • Flight delays caused by air-traffic controller furloughs are at risk of recurring as the Federal Aviation Administration considers sending workers home without pay during the next fiscal year amid a funding shortfall.

    FAA officials have told aviation industry officials and lawmakers that a new round of furloughs will be needed to close a budget gap of as much as $700 million in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, four people briefed by agency leaders said. They asked not to be named because the meetings were private.

    The furloughs raise the prospect of a repeat of the flight delays caused in April by traffic-control staffing shortages at U.S. airports. Airline-industry groups have urged the FAA to avoid disruptions to commercial flights as groups such as airports and private pilots lobby to protect their interests.

    “We’re in for some pretty tough times,” Melissa Rudinger, senior vice president for government affairs at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a Frederick, Maryland-based group for private aviators, said in an interview.

    A new round of automatic across-the-board cuts known as sequestration takes effect in the new federal budget year and may have more impact this time, officials including FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx have said in briefings, according to the people. Huerta and Foxx said the agency already has cut nonessential travel and training, the people said.

    Furloughs of controllers and other FAA employees that began April 21 caused delays to about 3 to 4 percent of flights, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

    Congressional Action

    Within six days, the House and Senate passed legislation ending the furloughs and preventing the FAA from cutting funding for 149 small-airport control towers operated by contractors.

    Lawmakers gave the agency authority to transfer $253 million from airport construction grant funds to pay for employee salaries and the towers. The FAA’s annual budget is about $16 billion.

    That legal authority applied only to the 2013 budget, so Congress must act again in the next budget year to prevent furloughs or save specific programs.

    Under sequestration, automatic spending cuts enacted as part of the 2011 deal to raise the debt limit, non-defense budgets must be reduced by 7.3 percent starting Oct. 1, according to a CRS report.

    The cuts at the FAA are smaller than that because some agency accounts, such as the airport-construction grants, are exempt. The agency hasn’t said what it expects to cut in the next budget cycle.

    Uncertain Outcome

    The FAA is also considering eliminating the contract towers again, one of the people said.

    Uncertainly remains over how much FAA must cut, and that lack of clarity could drive deeper cuts later in the year, the people said.

    The House and Senate haven’t agreed on budgets for government agencies so funding will expire on Sept. 30 without action, threatening a government shutdown.

    A measure was introduced Sept. 10 by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, to continue current funding levels until Dec. 15. It includes a provision giving government agencies more authority to move money between accounts “to avoid furloughs.”

    Even with that authority, FAA officials have said that they would have to furlough some employees, including controllers, to reach budget goals, the people said.

    Controller Salaries

    Seventy-one percent of the FAA’s operations budget — a $9 billion pot that pays for air-traffic control, safety inspections and aircraft certification — goes to salaries, according to CRS. Air-traffic controllers are among the highest paid government employees, earning an average of $108,000 per year, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Huerta has told Congress it will be difficult to reach spending goals without furloughs. The FAA employs about 45,000.

    FAA officials don’t think they would have the authority to furlough employees immediately under a short-term solution like the Rogers bill, the people said. That would force the agency to postpone cuts until later in the budget year, when it must cram a year’s worth of trims into a shorter period.

    That may cause more severe flight disruptions, they said.

    The prospect of a new round of cuts is pitting various aviation interest groups against each other.

    ‘Front-Line Safety’

    “We expect that Congress and the White House will ensure that the traveling and shipping public are not impacted by sequester, as they were in April, and believe that air-traffic controllers, who are front-line safety professionals should not face furloughs,” Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Washington trade group representing the largest air carriers, Airlines for America, said in an e-mail.

    “The importance of aviation, particularly of keeping the schedule and keeping people connected, is just as important today as it was six months ago,” said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, a Washington-based trade association, in an interview.

    Airport groups such as the Washington-based Airports Council International-North America and the Alexandria, Virginia-based American Association of Airport Executives have objected to Congress using FAA’s airport-grant pool of more than $3 billion to pay controller salaries and operate towers.

    Private-pilot groups such as AOPA are urging the agency to minimize cuts to programs its members use, such as the stations that give aviators weather information, Rudinger said.

    The group is girding for painful cuts, she said.

    “Certainly we anticipate something similar to earlier this year,” she said.