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Public Feeling Pain of Delays, House Passes Bill to End Furloughs at the FAA

April 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
To address air traffic slowdowns and passenger frustration over flight delays and cancellations due to sequester-induced staff shortages, the House of Representatives passed a bill to end furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration. Margaret Warner talks with Alan Levin of Bloomberg News.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to the agreement in Washington to address air traffic slowdowns, the result of furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration. The House of Representatives passed a bill today by a wide margin to ease the problem after both parties heard mounting frustration from passengers.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MAN: Two-thirds being in the affirmative, the rules are suspended, the bill is passed, and without objection the motion to reconsider is laid on the table.

MARGARET WARNER: Just before leaving town for a weeklong break, the House voted by a lopsided 361-41 to let the FAA use some $250 million dollars in unspent funds to get air traffic controllers back on the job.

Last Sunday, the FAA began furloughs of its 15,000 controllers and thousands of others, cutting their work schedules by one day every two weeks. That triggered hundreds of delayed flights. The agency’s head, Michael Huerta, insisted Wednesday that mandatory across-the-board cuts, the so-called sequester, had forced his hand.

MICHAEL HUERTA, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator: The hardest thing that we have to do is reduce these hours. But in order to hit the target we need to hit, we don’t have — we don’t really have any choice.

MARGARET WARNER: Democrats and Republicans disagreed over how many of the flight delays could be attributed to furloughs, but they agreed on the need to act. Still, even some who supported the House measure today criticized the process.

REP. TOM LATHAM, R-Iowa: I have often said, this is no way to run a government.

MARGARET WARNER: Republicans like Tom Latham of Iowa accused President Obama of playing politics.

TOM LATHAM: We are taking action to end the administration’s political games that are — threaten our passengers’ rights and their safety. The fact that we’re here today trying to solve this problem is the result of the sequester. And I remind you that the president, and again the president brought the sequester to the table.

MARGARET WARNER: Democrat Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip, rejected the criticism, and he challenged Republicans to address cuts in other agencies.

REP. STENY HOYER, D-Md.: We ought not to be mitigating the sequester’s effect on just one segment, when children, the sick, our military and many other groups who will be impacted by this irresponsible policy are left unhelped.

MARGARET WARNER: At the White House today, spokesman Jay Carney said Congress is taking what he called a Band-Aid approach to easing the impact of the sequester. But he said the president will sign the bill.

Now a look at the quick turn of events of the past 48 hours to ease flight delays and what triggered it. Alan Levin covers the aviation industry for Bloomberg News and joins me now.

Alan, thanks for joining us.

This kind of quick action on Capitol Hill, this kind of quick agreement is almost unheard of these days. What brought it about?

ALAN LEVIN, Bloomberg News: Well, I think this — that when you bring pain to the public, that’s when Congress reacts to sequestration.

A lot of the other cuts are a little bit more theoretical. They don’t touch people in a big way. And you also had here some fairly significant lobbies, the airline, some big unions, also weighing in heavily as well.

MARGARET WARNER: How bad — we heard a lot of people complaining. We saw long lines at airports. But how bad were the delays at their peak this past week? How many passengers were actually affected?

ALAN LEVIN: Gosh, I don’t have a passenger total, but that’s a very good question.

This is the time of year when you get more thunderstorms and bad weather that affect flight delays, and so they tend to ramp up, and I think overall the total delays we saw were pretty typical for this time of year. Now, having said that, we did see an increase in delays of about between 400 to as many as 1,600 flight delays due directly to this — these furloughs since Sunday. So it’s not an insignificant impact.

MARGARET WARNER: And I understand it wasn’t just that the air traffic controllers had their days cut back, but a lot of other people who, say, do maintenance on radar systems or other things that are kind of vital to the smooth operation of this system.

ALAN LEVIN: That’s true. The FAA has thousands of technicians who keep, you know, the radars and landing systems running. And there were some delays in New York and elsewhere as a result of equipment that went out, and they just didn’t have employees to get that back online.

Now, that was much less significant than the controllers, but it definitely had an impact as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you cover this industry and this business. Is it possible to know whether the Transportation Department, as the Republicans — many Republicans charge, actually did have more flexibility to move money around to keep certain vital people on, while still making the kind of cuts they needed to?

ALAN LEVIN: Well, it’s hard to say with 100 percent certainty.

One of the key things that the Republicans were saying was that FAA had $500 million dollars in money that they could transfer to these controllers, but it turns out the bulk of that money goes for contracts to keep up air traffic control equipment. So it wouldn’t have been that simple.

Now, you know, could they have moved money a little bit about around here and there? That’s still an open question.

MARGARET WARNER: Was there any price paid here during this week by the airlines themselves, I mean, financially, either lost — just lost revenues or fines or penalties for late flights?

ALAN LEVIN: Well, a few years ago, the government imposed fines for flights that are more than three hours delayed on the tarmac.

When these furloughs went into effect, the government said they were going to waive enforcement of that. So there was no cost on that. Now, airlines do incur fairly significant costs when they have delays. We don’t have any numbers. That won’t come out for months probably. But I’m sure they — it probably cost them into the millions of dollars this week.

MARGARET WARNER: And so when the president does sign this bill, whether it’s this weekend or soon, how quickly will it take the whole system to get back to normal?

ALAN LEVIN: We’re actually still waiting on word from the FAA and Department of Transportation on that.

I suspect it shouldn’t take more than a day or two or three to get people back to work. But it appears they’re still sort of working out some of the details about just how quickly that will be.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Alan Levin of Bloomberg News, thanks so much.

ALAN LEVIN: Thank you.