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Congress Approves Plan to End Sequester Flight Delays

Friday, 26 Apr 2013 | 1:16 PM ET
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The House of Representatives on Friday overwhelmingly approved a Senate plan to ease nationwide air traffic delays caused by automatic federal spending cuts, seeking to calm an irritated traveling public as lawmakers themselves flew out of Washington for a week-long recess.

The Senate had unanimously voted for the plan late Thursday.

Congress' quick move is good news for travelers, but falls short of broader action needed to address wider across-the-board spending cuts that took effect last month, the White House said.

The barely four pages of legislation will give the Department of Transportation flexibility to use unspent funds to cover the costs of air traffic controllers and other essential employees at the Federal Aviation Administration who had been furloughed.

The bill, approved by the House in 361-41 vote, now moves to President Barack Obama's desk for signature. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama plans to sign the bill.

(Read More: Budget Cuts Back in Spotlight as Flight Delays Mount)

It is unclear how quickly the FAA can reverse the furloughs.

Lawmakers were eager to stem the growing wrath of the traveling public, which had dealt with significant take-off and landing delays since the furloughs started on Sunday. There were many reports from passengers of pilots coming on the intercom to explicitly blame the air traffic snarls on the automatic federal spending cuts that went into effect last month.

Congress also faced angry comments from airline CEOs whose companies had mounted a grassroots campaign by setting up a website called dontgroundamerica.com, encouraging Americans to send messages to Congress and the White House.

(Read More: After Flight Delays, American Says It's Back to Normal)

The quick legislative action marks a surprising bipartisan effort, especially after many Republicans had accused the Obama administration of manipulating funds to maximize the impact of the automatic budget cuts and thus make Republicans look bad.

It does come with the risk, though, of unleashing furious lobbying campaigns to ease other program cuts that were triggered by the controversial "sequestration" that took effect on March 1, requiring across-the-board spending cuts among most federal agencies. The cuts aimed to trim a total of $85 billion from federal spending through September 2013.

Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland gave an impassioned speech on the House floor on Friday about the groups not getting a break. He said children, the sick and the military are not helped by this deal.

"Let's deal with all the adverse cuts, not just those that affect the affluent traveling sector," Hoyer said.

Band-Aid

While supporting the legislation, the White House on Friday said it falls short of broader action needed to address sequestration.

"It will be good news for America's traveling public if Congress spares them these unnecessary delays," Carney said in a statement.

Carney said lawmakers need to take additional steps to alleviate the impact felt beyond the airline industry from the cuts, such as among poorer elderly people, defense industry workers and others brought on by sequestration.

"Ultimately, this is no more than a temporary Band-Aid that fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester's mindless across-the-board cuts," he said.

Sequestration took effect when congressional leaders and Obama failed to come to an alternative budget deal that would have turned off the crude budget cuts.

Transportation officials have made other cuts to their budget but furloughs of air traffic controllers began this week, prompting traveler backlash at major hubs such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

On Friday morning, departing flights at Newark Liberty International Airport were delayed more than an hour and 15 minutes, and Boston's Logan Airport had departure delays of more than 30 minutes, both due to staffing, the FAA said. Teterboro airport in New Jersey, which handles many corporate jets, also was experiencing delays of more than 90 minutes due to staffing.

The U.S. Travel Association on Friday said it appreciated Congress' swift action, especially ahead of the heavy summer travel season.

But the group said it was concerned that the Transportation Department may divert funds from critical infrastructure projects.

"At a time when we should be modernizing our infrastructure to improve efficiency, capacity and U.S. global competitiveness, sequestration-related issues should not be solved on the backs of airports," the group said in a statement.

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