* 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 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.
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
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.
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
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)