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Weary air travelers to get a break from furloughs

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (PHOTO: DB King at Wikimedia)

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (PHOTO: DB King at Wikimedia)

By Jennifer Liberto and Mike Ahlers

WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) — A fast-track move by Congress to put air traffic controllers back on the job can’t come soon enough for travelers facing Friday morning delays.

It’s a lightning-fast response for Congress. Since Sunday, furloughs of air traffic controllers have delayed more than 3,000 flights, thanks to spending cuts Congress imposed.

On Friday, the House was expected to pass a bill giving the Federal Aviation Administration more power to move $253 million around to stop furloughs of some 15,000 air traffic controllers, as well as other FAA staffers.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill, which sailed through the Senate Thursday night.

The FAA expects to be able to tell controllers to go back to work as soon as possible, although details had yet to be worked out as of Friday morning, according to a source who wasn’t authorized to talk about plans.

While Friday is normally one of the busiest travel days, the air space in the New York area was especially clogged, in part because fewer controllers reported for duty.

Flights leaving Newark Liberty International Airport were delayed up to 90 minutes. Tampa-bound passengers stuck on LaGuardia Airport’s tarmac were told that controller staffing shortages had delayed their flight by 45 minutes.

“Until the furloughs are ended, delays are going to continue unfortunately because we do not have full staffing in our facilities,” said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Forced spending cuts have led the Federal Aviation Administration to bench about 1,500 controllers from the job each day. Starting last Sunday, several busy airport towers in the New York area, Los Angeles and Chicago have had to space out flight landings, causing delays that ranged between 15 minutes and two hours.

The FAA has said it had no choice. The agency had to cut $600 million from its spending by September, and was planning to achieve that goal by forcing all 47,000 FAA workers to take 11 furlough days, or one day per pay period, through Sept. 30.

Its part of the $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board forced spending cuts that went into effect on March 1.

Air traffic controllers weren’t the only workers being forced to take unpaid time off. Furloughs also kicked in Sunday for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Management and Budget, joining federal public defenders and Department of Labor employees.

If the bill sparing controllers becomes law, FAA employees would join an elite group of federal workers that includes federal meat and poultry inspectors, who were kept on the job thanks in part to lobbying by industries that depend on them.

“Airlines for America commends the Senate for passing the measure to end air traffic controller furloughs,” said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the trade group for airlines, which had also filed a lawsuit trying to block the furloughs last week.

The bill allows the FAA to dip into a pot of money for airport improvements to stop furloughs.

One area still unclear is whether the FAA will use some of its new powers to restore funding to control towers for regional airports now scheduled to close June 15.

The FAA earlier this year announced it would close 149 contract towers, which operate at small- to medium-size airports, to meet its sequester-related cuts.

J. Spencer Dickerson, head of an association that represents the towers, said his group hopes the FAA will reverse its decision on the closures.

The original $253 million bill, by Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, is earmarked with $220 million to end the controller furlough and $25 million to allow contract towers to remain open.

But the bill approved by the Senate removed references to the furlough or contract towers, leaving it up to the FAA to decide how to apply funds, he said.

“You can make a pretty good argument that the money is there (to keep contract towers open) if the FAA would choose to do so,” Dickerson said. “It’s not explicit. We would like to have seen it explicit, but the money is there.”

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