Senate Acts on Airport Delays

The Senate moved last night to end the airport delays caused by furloughing air traffic controllers.

The Senate moved last night to end the airport delays caused by furloughing air traffic controllers.

The Hill (“Senate passes measure to end airport delays“):

The Senate passed a bill on Thursday evening to end air traffic controller furloughs caused by the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester that have been blamed for mounting flight delays across the country.

The passage of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), capped a day of scrambling that saw lawmakers alternate between trying to pass a quick legislative fix for the air traffic controllers’ furloughs and point fingers at each other for the flight delays they caused.

Collins’ bill, which was passed by unanimous consent on Thursday evening, gives the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) more flexibility to keep essential workers on the job.


Collins’s version of the bill to end the air traffic controllers’ furlough allows the FAA to transfer airport improvement funds to eliminate the agency’s budget shortfall.


Lawmakers in the House said prior to Senate’s vote Thursday evening that they would consider bills to stop the furloughs, even as they questioned the necessity of a legislative fix.

“I continue to believe that the FAA has ability … without passing a law to move money around within that organization to not have these furloughs occurring to the people that provide safety to the flying public,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said.

“We’re willing to look at what the Senate is going to propose, but I believe we don’t need to pass legislation,” Shuster continued.

The White House said on Wednesday that President Obama would be “open” to considering legislation specifically addressing the air traffic controller furloughs.

The lurch toward a legislative fix to the mounting flight delays came as airlines reported Thursday that 16,000 people had sent comments to Congress and the Obama administration calling for a resolution to the air traffic controller furloughs.


Both the sequester itself and the administration’s handling of it are stupid political stunts. To the extent cutting back government spending makes sense, it should be targeted based on necessity and rationality rather than across-the-board. But it was obvious from the beginning that furloughing controllers was done precisely to maximize inconvenience to the public. WSJ observes,

The Federal Aviation Administration claims the sequester spending cuts are forcing it to delay some 6,700 flights a day, but rarely has a bureaucracy taken such joy in inconveniencing the public.

Though the FAA says it is strapped for cash, the air traffic control agency managed to find the dollars to update its interactive “command center” tool on its website so passengers can check if their airports are behind schedule due to what it calls sequester-related “staffing” problems. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn noticed this rare case of FAA technological entrepreneurship and fired off a letter Wednesday protesting what he called the agency’s “full blown media rollout” to hype the flight delays.

That had zero impact on FAA bosses, who were on Capitol Hill rationalizing their dereliction. But after Mr. Coburn published his letter on his website, FAA regional employees wrote to blow the whistle on their bosses. As one email put it, “the FAA management has stated in meetings that they need to make the furloughs as hard as possible for the public so that they understand how serious it is.”

It’s working in the sense that it has the traveling public outraged. But, rather than having the intended reaction—a backlash against the sequester and a recognition that the federal government provides essential services—it’s being seen for what it is.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. stonetools says:

    Business Travellers have to make their appointments!

    Head Start teachers-well, screw them! No problem furloughing them-all they do is help minority children learn.

  2. KariQ says:

    I don’t know why the GOP is so determined to believe that airport delays are the worst thing in the world, but since that appears to be the case, you might at least check out what the fact checkers are saying about it:

    The across-the-board cuts required by the sequester appear to leave little wiggle room, and so the FAA assertions have the appearance of a Geppetto Checkmark.

    “I would have to take the administration’s position on this,” said Bill Hoagland, a former Republican Senate Budget Committee aide who helped write a 1985 budget law that was the model for the current budget-cutting law. “They are administering the law as written.”

  3. James Joyner says:

    @stonetools: It’s not a reasonable comparison. One, public safety is always prioritized over welfare programs. Two, this is a case of the government creating a regulatory requirement and then not fulfilling it. That is, the reason a lack of ATCs causes delays is that the government won’t allow planes to fly without the proper ratio of ATCs. That’s a different thing than not responding to a social problem that exists of its own accord.

    @KariQ: Sure. But the administration routinely figures out creative ways not to enforce laws they don’t like. Here, they’re deliberately enforcing the letter of the law to make a political point.

  4. KariQ says:

    Well how dare those sneaky bastards enact a law that was deliberately removed all discretion in exactly the way it was written. Unforgivable.

  5. Gustopher says:

    So, what were these airport improvement funds going to be used for?

    And, of course, enforcing the law as it was written is probably grounds for impeachment.

  6. Console says:

    First of all, rotating furloughs at big facilities (which makes sense because big facilities cost way more to run) would maximize delays. One day you shut down Chicago. The next day Atlanta, etc. etc. So let’s not pretend that current policy is as hurtful as it could be.

    Second of all, the same congressional asses that are trying pretend the FAA has leeway are the same congressional asses that would be up in arms if the FAA decided to short lower traffic facilities in their districts in order to keep busier facilities staffed. So of course the furloughs will be spread out equally over the whole agency. It stops an even bigger political cluster. Not to mention that lower traffic towers are going to be more likely to be in red districts which would increase political animosity.

    Lastly, things aren’t even as bad as they can get. Wait until some summer storms hit and every plane has to get routed through one short staffed center. So far we’ve had good weather and people are already crying. If it isn’t fixed, it WILL get worse.

    Just because you can shuffle the same amount of papers in a 4 day work week as you can in 5 doesn’t mean everyone’s job works like that. A controller can’t just work faster to up his productivity.