The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's rolling furlough of 15,000 air traffic controllers is into its fifth day and continues to slow air traffic in the United States.
Department of Transportation officials insist the workforce reductions will not compromise safety because controllers are spacing planes further apart so they can manage traffic with fewer on-duty personnel.
The trade association representing passenger carriers, as well as cargo airlines UPS and FedEx, has sued to put all controllers back in the tower and Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to argue that the Obama administration has let the cuts impact a highly visible government mission to score political points over how to solve the nation's ongoing budget deficit. The airline industry and many lawmakers want the DOT and FAA to find other ways to save the money required by law.
About 1,500 air traffic controllers, or 10 percent of the workforce, are on unpaid leave at any given time, leaving airport towers and radar facilities with reduced manpower.
On Sunday, there were more than 400 flight delays. On Monday, 1,200 takeoffs and landings were delayed and on Tuesday more than 1,025 flights were delayed because of staffing shortages.
On Wednesday, there were more delays and the FAA issued a statement saying staffing shortages were especially acute at FAA facilities in Miami; Tampa, Fla.; Los Angeles; and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
At a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing about how to develop a comprehensive freight transportation strategy for the nation in the next surface transportation reauthorization bill, Fred Smith, the founder, chairman and CEO of FedEx Corp., was asked how the forced budget cuts due to Washington's political stalemate was impacting his express carrier.
"It is adversely affecting our operations," he said, while acknowledging that the situation is worse for passenger airlines. "Obviously, it's an impediment to commerce to have these delays."
At an FAA budget hearing in the Appropriations Committee, Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and other Republicans took FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to task for not avoiding furloughs of controllers.
"A shocking lack of management," Rogers said. He claimed there was no forewarning that the cuts would disrupt air travel even though DOT Secretary Ray LaHood warned two months ago the sequester cuts would result in cause delays of up to 90 minutes for flights at major cities.
White House spokesman Jay Carney again blamed Republicans for initially embracing the meat-ax approach of the sequester to accomplish spending reductions they couldn't successfully negotiate. He urged Congress to take steps to remedy the situation.
The FAA has tried to produce savings through hiring freezes, travel restrictions, contract reductions and other measures to avoid furloughs, but furloughs are necessary now to achieve the $637 million in automatic cuts because the FAA's budget is heavily weighted toward personnel.
"Now, if Congress wants to address this matter, then they should act. But this is something that only by law Congress can do," Carney said, according to a briefing transcript.
"Our interest is in eliminating the sequester entirely. It never should have become law. The President has put forward a proposal that would eliminate the sequester," he said. - Eric Kulisch