WASHINGTON The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has "very limited" flexibility to avoid furloughing air traffic controllers if automatic budget cuts go into effect beginning on Friday, agency head Michael Huerta told Congress on Wednesday.
"We've identified a wide variety of savings but I don't think I can absolutely eliminate furloughs," Huerta told the House of Representatives Transportation Committee in response to Republican suggestions that he could avoid furloughs by shifting agency funding around.
Huerta's testimony echoed a warning last week by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who told White House reporters the proposed cuts would lead to delayed flights, shuttered control towers and irate passengers from coast to coast.
Republicans took issue at the hearing with that grim scenario, telling Huerta it should be possible to find some $627 million in savings from the agency's $16 billion budget without having to furlough most of the FAA's 47,000 employees for one or more days per pay period.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, narrowed the scope further, noting that the operating budget for the Air Traffic Organization of the FAA is $7.4 billion and a 5 percent cut affecting that division would amount to about $370 million.
"This is a time we really need to sharpen the pencil of the FAA ... and I've got to believe you're able to find $30 million a month in a $7.4 billion budget ... without the threat of endangering safety," Shuster said.
Huerta said the agency was focusing first on a hiring freeze to come up with the savings, then looking at its various contracts, the largest of which covers the FAA's telecommunications infrastructure and is important to maintaining the operation of the system.
Speaking of savings that have to come through furloughs, he said: "We're making every effort to reduce that number as much as we can but I don't think we can avoid it."
(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Beech and Mohamad Zargham)