Aviation Chief, GOP Lawmakers Clash Over FAA Furloughs

“As we implement the furloughs, we refuse to sacrifice safety, even if means less efficient operations,” FAA's Michael Huerta said Wednesday. “As we implement the furloughs, we refuse to sacrifice safety, even if means less efficient operations,” FAA's Michael Huerta said Wednesday. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

With flight delays and anger rising at airports around the country, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday told a House panel that his agency has little flexibility under the sequestration law to reprogram funds to avoid the furloughs of air traffic controllers that kicked in last Sunday.

Administrator Michael Huerta also stressed that his agency, beginning in February, had warned lawmakers, airlines, unions and the public “in broad terms” that a 10 percent budget reduction would soon require 11 days of furloughs that would have significant impact on major air hubs.

Then in March, after tower planners drew up revised work schedules for controllers, FAA shared “more granular operational detail” with the airline industry, he told the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee.

Asked about prospects for rerouting funds to cancel the furloughs, Huerta said, “Many options have been floated in Congress and by the general public, but until something is enacted we must live within the law.”

Full Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., called Huerta’s narrative notification “a shocking lapse in management. How come you didn’t tell us about this beforehand?” he asked. “Not a word. You didn’t ask our advice on how to handle it.” Rogers blasted the administration’s “imperial attitude, of which you’re the most recent example. It is disgusting for the FAA to try to blame difficulties in flying on Congress, having not informed us on what the plan would do,” he said. “It is unacceptable.”

The panel’s ranking member, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., answered for the agency: “It is mystifying to me that some are surprised by these delays and that they would blame the FAA for Congress’ failures.” She cited a Feb. 11 letter from the Transportation secretary to Congress warning that it would be impossible to avoid furloughs if sequestration occurs and that “without action by Congress, this situation will get worse before it gets better. “

The hearing on the fiscal 2014 budget came as the Obama administration and Congress continued their finger-pointing over who is to blame for the increasingly visible harm from across-the-board budget cuts that began March 1. FAA reported that flight delays on Monday had reached 1,200.

Huerta, in his first appearance before the panel since being confirmed, outlined the administration’s fiscal 2014 $15.6 budget request, noting that it is $351million lower than the previous year and assumes no sequester in the long run. The budget attempts to “balance” responsible efforts at deficit reduction with investments in important future programs such as the airline industry’s conversion to the NextGen system of new technology for airport management, he said.

“As we implement the furloughs, we refuse to sacrifice safety, even if means less efficient operations,” Huerta said, noting that the FAA tracks delays and meets with industry daily.

Subcommittee Chairman Tom Latham, R-Iowa, pressed Huerta on opportunities to reprogram funds from FAA grant accounts and from cutting overhead.

“Under the framework of the sequester act, we have to cut equal amounts across all activities,” Huerta said of the plan to trim the agency by $635 million by September. “We have only four colors of money,” he said, citing operations, facilities, research and the airport improvement program. “The largest share is operations, so the cuts apply disproportionately on operations,” which is 61 percent of the budget, 70 percent of which is pay, he said. “Overhead activities are a very small percentage of our budget since 84 percent of us are in the field,” Huerta added.

What has been cut, Huerta said, are contracts, consulting, information technology and travel. “We’ve canceled a training program for new controllers and significantly slashed other training,” he added. FAA has a full hiring freeze, he said, and temporary employees have been let go. “What suffers are longer-term activities, such as research activities associated with NextGen,” he said.

Asked whether FAA should target the furloughs to preserve air traffic control services at the busiest airports, Huerta said, “We did consider a differential impact on facilities but came to conclusion that the national air system is an interconnected network. How traffic moves does not distinguish between large and small facilities,” he said, and airline crews travel from wide variety of facilities to maximize the workforce within available hours. “The sequester is like a pay cut, and is applied equally to like groups of employees, who still have to work together,” he said. “The agency can’t put itself in position of choosing winners and losers by geographical areas of country.”

Huerta assured the panel his agency had received no direction from the Office of Management and Budget on specifics of its furlough policy. “For us it was a mathematical exercise.” FAA did, however, consult with the Defense and Homeland Security departments on which militarily significant airports it should keep open when it planned for a June shut down of 149 contract control towers.

The closing of control towers, which is the subject of a lawsuit, “captured the media attention and the public focus,” Huerta said. “Despite our efforts to talk about the furloughs, it didn’t‘ really sink in with people.”

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