WRAPUP 3-U.S. Congress moving toward quick fix to flight delays

Thu Apr 25, 2013 7:19pm EDT

* Lawmakers eager for deal before next week's recess

* Airlines, FAA say safety not affected by furloughs (Updates with progress toward deal, adds quote and details)

By Richard Cowan and Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON, April 25 (Reuters) - U.S. Senate leaders are frantically trying to put together a plan to alleviate widespread airline flight delays caused by last month's automatic federal spending cuts, working on legislation that could be voted on as early as Thursday.

Under bipartisan legislation that is all but ready to be presented to the full Senate, the Department of Transportation would be given new flexibility to take unspent funds and use them to cover the costs of air traffic controllers and other essential employees at the Federal Aviation Administration.

"It's a matter of dotting i's and crossing t's," said one Senate aide familiar with the discussions.

Once a deal is reached among senators and the White House, Senate leaders would seek quick passage. If passed, the House of Representatives then could hold a quick vote, ending another chapter in a series of Washington battles over budget and taxes that have been waged since 2011.

Lawmakers are eager to find a fix before they head out of town for next week's congressional recess. They are concerned about deepening public resentment over the delays caused by the furloughs of controllers.

Airline passengers have grown increasingly irritated over the past week with delays at major hubs like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Some have reported delays of several hours in takeoff times and planes being put in holding patterns in the air. Many pilots blame furloughs for landing delays.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association on Thursday said that many of the 1,978 controller trainees are now working full shifts by themselves to help cover staffing shortages.

And airline executives ratcheted up their complaints. "This is government not working - capital letters, exclamation point - when we're sitting here holding the traveling public hostage in the midst of sequestration," JetBlue Chief Executive Dave Barger said on a conference call on Thursday.

The FAA has said it had no alternative to furloughing controllers this week after Congress failed to come up with a budget deal that would have averted the $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts between March 1 and Sept. 30.

At the same time, the FAA has emphasized that passenger safety is not at risk. Airlines for America, the trade organization for U.S. airlines, also said on Thursday that the furloughs have not created a safety issue.

"These are simply irresponsible cuts that have real and detrimental impacts on the traveling public, on the airline industry, on the hospitality industry," Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said on the Senate floor. Collins is one of the negotiators on the bill being written.

While Republicans are joining the effort for a quick fix, many have been skeptical about whether the White House and FAA are taking advantage of flexibility they already have.

Republicans have accused the Obama administration of maximizing the disruptions to try to shift budget blame on Republicans - an allegation the administration has denied. Republicans have created a Twitter hashtag, #Obamaflightdelays, for people to complain about the delays.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, on Thursday sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking for internal documents discussing budget flexibilities. The Department of Transportation said it is reviewing the request.

However, a congressional aide involved in the original automatic spending cut legislation that was enacted in August 2011 told Reuters that the administration cannot under current law shift money from outside accounts to fund the air traffic controller account.

SEQUESTRATION FALLOUT

The FAA has said it will have to furlough 47,000 employees for up to 11 days through Sept. 30 in order to save $637 million that is required by the "sequestration," automatic spending cuts that started on March 1 for most federal agencies.

Of those 47,000 workers, almost 15,000 are full-time air traffic controllers or trainees.

The FAA issued an update that said more than 863 delays in the system on Wednesday were attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furloughs.

An additional 2,132 delays were attributed to weather and other factors, the FAA said. The agency said it would work with airlines to minimize delays.

Airlines, many of which are reporting earnings this week, have pushed the government to quickly ease the flight delays caused by the furloughs.

Jeff Smisek, chairman and chief executive of United Continental Holdings Inc, said his company's network operations center is working around the clock to minimize the impact of fewer controllers.

"We are disappointed that the FAA chose this path, that maximizes customer disruptions and damage to airlines instead of choosing a less disruptive method to comply with the budget obligations," Smisek said on a conference call.

CLOSED-DOOR TALKS

Thursday's flurry of activity in Washington followed a meeting late on Wednesday by the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to discuss what steps Congress could take to provide the FAA with the flexibility it needs to cancel the furloughs.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, and Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, were considering "a few options" that came out of that conversation. By late Thursday, the talks, involving a handful of senators, had mostly settled on which approach they wanted to take, according to Senate aides.

Earlier in the day, senators had been considering attaching any FAA funding measure to an unrelated Internet sales tax measure the Senate has been debating all week. But that bill faced an uncertain fate in the House, prompting negotiators to plan a stand-alone bill to fix the air travel problem.

The proposal being weighed would not spare other agencies and federal programs from the across-the-board reductions totaling $85 billion. (Reporting by Richard Cowan, with additional reporting by Doug Palmer, Thomas Ferraro, David Lawder, Karen Jacobs and Nivedita Bhattacharjee; Writing by Karey Van Hall; Editing by Vicki Allen, Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)