With American travelers finishing up spring breaks and planning for summer vacations, the hundreds of daily flight delays that started Sunday as a result of furloughs by the Federal Aviation Administration have become a hot topic on Capitol Hill.
Republican members of Congress expressed frustration with the FAA today over the cost-cutting measures the agency has taken to meet the requirements of sequestration.
A hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation illustrated the tension some in Washington are feeling in light of the delays. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers engaged FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a heated back-and-forth, claiming the agency did not give those in the aviation industry and in Congress enough time to plan for these cuts.
"Did I hear you correctly say that you first gave the airlines and airports and the infrastructure notice of how this thing was going to be applied last Wednesday?" Rogers asked Huerta.
"No," Huerta said. "What I said was that we provided notification to them of the general impact - "
Rogers cut him off.
"I'm not worried about general impact. I want you to tell us when you told them the details of which airports at what times … would have trouble. Now that was last Wednesday as I understand it.
" Tuesday," Huerta said.
"Last Tuesday, pardon me. Which was a few days before it went into effect," Rogers clarified.
"That's correct," said Huerta.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned about furloughs for air traffic controllers as far back as February. Huerta noted that, but Subcommittee Chairman Tom Latham, R-Iowa, was not satisfied with that answer.
"You're in a difficult situation, obviously, but I wish you had come to us to actually let us know what we could do to fix the problem," Latham, said. "We've heard nothing before, and that is a frustration I think shared by Chairman Rogers, and I think a lot of us here, that these are not insurmountable problems. In fact, we cooperate and work together."
Republicans criticized the FAA this week for cutting back on workers' pay when the agency's budget had increased in the face of fewer domestic flights than in 2000.
Huerta defended the budget, saying the agency had kept up with increases in wages and invested in new technology, while continuing to maintain old systems until the new one is ready to be put in place.
Some of those advancements include reducing fuel usage, shaving minutes off flight times and converting from a radar system to a satellite system.
"These are investments that have significant long-term benefits in making the system operate much more efficiently, and to handle the expected growth of traffic that we expect without a commensurate increase in cost," Huerta told the subcommittee. "I think it is pennywise and pound-foolish to delay and defer the investments that we need to make in this long-term infrastructure that are actually going to make the system operate much more efficiently down the road."
Just after the onset of sequestration, the FAA announced it planned to close down more than 100 small airport towers in April. A lawsuit against the FAA regarding those closures put them off until mid-June, but Huerta warned that if the court ruled the FAA did not have the ability to shut down contract aircraft towers, the agency might need to enact more furloughs.
"For every dollar that I'm unable to save through contract tower savings, then I have to find savings someplace else - either in other contracts or in payroll expenses," he said. "That could theoretically increase the number of days that I would require for furlough."
Tuesday, after lamenting the harm the FAA cuts are doing to travelers, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced a bill to erase sequestration cuts by using funding previously reserved for the war in Afghanistan.