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Sen. Moran criticizes FAA for air traffic controller furloughs, other tactics

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, April 23, 2013, at 5:01 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 23, 2013, at 5:12 p.m.

The flying public should expect flight delays to worsen over the summer – unless the furloughs of air traffic controllers, which began Sunday, stop, Sen. Jerry Moran said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

The Department of Transportation could save money in ways that don’t include the closure of 149 air traffic control towers and the furlough of controllers, according to Moran.

The FAA, like most federal agencies, is reducing its spending to meet the requirements of a budget-cutting deal reached by Congress and President Obama – part of a deficit reduction agreement that was initially struck in 2011.

FAA administrator Michael Huerta wasn’t forthcoming about the timing of the furloughs at last week’s Senate Appropriations Subcommittee meeting, Moran said.

“To have an administrator appear before the committee of jurisdiction this past week, to have him appear before the subcommittee that is responsible for his appropriations, and despite the questioning by Senator Collins, not to report what he would then announce the next day (on the furloughs) tells me something is totally wrong at the FAA,” he said.

The FAA informed airlines and the public on Friday about furloughs that were to begin Sunday.

“Any business that is faced with slightly less revenues than expected would find a way to solve that problem without inconveniencing their customers,” Moran said. “Apparently the mindset at the FAA, the Department of Transportation, and within this administration is, ‘let’s do things in a way that is most inconveniencing to our customers, the flying public, because that then creates political pressure for a response from Congress.’ ”

Moran said he thinks the FAA has spending flexibility that it could use to avoid tower closures and furloughs.

Moran, a Republican, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, introduced a Protect Our Skies Act, which if passed, would prohibit the closure of air traffic control towers.

But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in his own conference call with reporters Tuesday, denied that he was making a political statement by imposing the furloughs in an area that’s visible to taxpayers.

“This has nothing to do with politics,” LaHood said. “This is very bad policy that Congress passed and they should fix it.”

He said he warned about the furlough problem back in February, and no one should be surprised that it is now causing flight delays.

In the first two days of air traffic controller furloughs, more than 10,000 flights have been delayed and more than 600 flights have been canceled, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

And the disruptions for travelers – and for the economy – could grow, the association warned.

“As bad as delays have been, they could be even worse if the FAA were not taking extraordinary steps to cover for the controllers forced off the job,” the group said in a statement. “The FAA has been forced to cancel all training, halt work on critical modernization and NextGen projects, and are even using overtime at some of the busiest facilities.”

But Moran argues the White House is trying to make a political point that sequestration is difficult to achieve, and that it’s so painful that it can’t be achieved without dramatic consequences.

“I’m here to say there is a better response by an administration than the one we’ve seen.”

There should be a thoughtful debate on whether sequestration is doable and on the levels of spending, Moran said. “But let’s not hold the safety of the American people hostage as a result of that debate,” he said.

He said the FAA could take about $50 million out of other pools of money that Moran called “unencumbered balances” – money to be spent mostly on research – to keep air traffic control towers open.

The DOT’s website also touts grant programs and projects from which money could be diverted, Moran said, which would reduce or eliminate the need to furlough air traffic controllers.

Contributing: Associated Press

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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