Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Should Air Traffic Controllers Be Included In Furloughs?


Air travelers are growing less and less happy. Automatic budget cuts are now leading to hundreds of flight delays, about half of all delayed flights this week.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Up until this point, the effects of the sequester have been scattered and hard to pin down: hiring freezes, delayed park openings. But then the furloughs of air traffic controllers the Federal Aviation Administration had been threatening for months hit and, bam, the sequester got real, real fast.


KEITH: Pilots made announcements while planes sat delayed on the tarmac, blaming the sequester and Congress. Just a few weeks ago, Republicans gleefully accused the Obama administration of exaggerating the sequester effects. This week, there's a new message.

REPRESENTATIVE BILL SHUSTER: This administration is implementing sequestration to cause the most pain on the traveling public that it possibly can.

KEITH: Bill Shuster is a Republican from Pennsylvania and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He says the FAA should be furloughing other employees, not the controllers.

SHUSTER: We can do this in a smarter way. This administration has the flexibility to do that, and they're not doing it.

KEITH: The FAA continues to insist it isn't making travelers miserable on purpose, and doesn't have the budget flexibility to avoid the furloughs that are cascading into flight delays. Michael Huerta, the director of the FAA, testified before a House appropriations subcommittee yesterday.


KEITH: That last voice you heard was Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and chairman of the appropriations committee. He seemed skeptical of Huerta's explanation, and none too happy with the flight delays.


KEITH: The ranking Democrat on the appropriations committee, Nita Lowey from New York, batted back the idea that Congress hadn't been warned.


KEITH: But by the end of the day - at least in some corners of the Capitol - talk of blame was replaced with talk of solutions - not for the whole sequester, or even the whole FAA budget, but specifically for air traffic controllers. Republican Senator John Thune and Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller - who chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation - met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

SECRETARY RAY LAHOOD: There are too many delays, and common, ordinary citizens are being affected and I'm grateful to Chairman Rockefeller and Senator Thune for their interest in trying to be helpful.

KEITH: Exactly what Lahood meant by helpful isn't entirely clear, but it would likely involve some kind of legislation. Rockefeller and LaHood kept details to themselves.

LAHOOD: I think with your leadership, as always, hopefully we can find a fix.

KEITH: That was the transportation secretary, praising Senator Rockefeller. When asked how soon it might happen, Rockefeller said: soon.

SENATOR JAY ROCKEFELLER: We're working as fast as we possibly can, and we're sure running out of time, which actually helps.

KEITH: Both the House and the Senate leave for recess this weekend. It's not clear whether the two chambers could pass a fix - whatever form it takes - in the remaining two days. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.