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NEW YORK — The Federal Aviation Administration said that the U.S. air traffic system will resume normal operations by Sunday evening after lawmakers rushed a bill through Congress allowing the agency to withdraw furloughs of air traffic controllers and other workers.
The FAA said today that it has suspended all employee furloughs and that traffic facilities will begin returning to regular staffing levels over the next 24 hours. The furloughs were fallout from the $85 billion in automatic-across-the-board spending cuts this spring. The bill, passed on Friday, allows the FAA to move as much as $253 million within its budget to areas that will allow it to prevent reduced operations and staffing.
The furloughs started to hit air traffic controllers this past week, causing flight delays that left thousands of travelers frustrated and furious. Planes were forced to take off and land less frequently, so as not to overload the remaining controllers on duty.
The FAA had no choice but to cut $637 million as its share of $85 billion in automatic, government-wide spending cuts that must be achieved by the end of the federal budget year on Sept. 30.
Flight delays piled up across the country Sunday and Monday of this week as the FAA kept planes on the ground because there weren't enough controllers to monitor busy air corridors. Cascading delays held up flights at some of nation's busiest airports, including New York, Baltimore and Washington. Delta Air Lines canceled about 90 flights Monday because of worries about delays. Just about every passenger was rebooked on another Delta flight within a couple of hours. Air travel was smoother Tuesday.
Things could have been worse. A lot of people who had planned to fly this week changed their plans when they heard that air travel might be difficult, according to longtime aviation consultant Daniel Kasper of Compass Lexicon.
"Essentially what happened from an airline's perspective is that people who were going to travel didn't travel," he said. But canceled flights likely led to lost revenue for airlines. Even if they didn't have to incur some of costs of fueling up planes and getting them off the ground, crews that were already scheduled to work still had to paid.
"One week isn't going to kill them, but had it gone on much longer, it would have been a significant hit on their revenues and profits," Kasper said.
It's also a toll on travelers. At New York's LaGuardia airport on Friday, traveler Roger Bentley said "getting on a flight and being delayed really puts people on the spot. It puts people on the edge and makes people edgy and that's not something I want."
The challenges this week probably cost airlines less than disruptions from a typical winter storm, said John F. Thomas, an aviation consultant with L.E.K. Consulting.
"I think the fact that it got resolved this week has minimized the cost as it was more the inconvenience factor," Thomas said.
The budget cuts at the FAA were required under a law enacted two years ago as the government was approaching its debt limit. Democrats were in favor of raising the debt limit without strings attached so as not to provoke an economic crisis, but Republicans insisted on substantial cuts in exchange. The compromise was to require that every government "program, project and activity" — with some exceptions, like Medicare — be cut equally.
The FAA had reduced the work schedules of nearly all of its 47,000 employees by one day every two weeks, including 15,000 air traffic controllers, as well as thousands of air traffic supervisors, managers and technicians who keep airport towers and radar facility equipment working. That amounted to a 10 percent cut in hours and pay.
Republicans accused the Obama administration of forcing the furloughs to raise public pressure on Congress to roll back the budget cuts. Critics of the FAA insist the agency could have reduce its budget in other ways that would not have inconvenience travelers including diverting money from other accounts, such as those devoted to research, commercial space transportation and modernization of the air traffic control computers.
President Barack Obama chided lawmakers today over their fix for widespread flight delays, deeming it an irresponsible way to govern, dubbing it a "Band-Aid" and a quick fix, rather than a lasting solution to the spending cuts known as the sequester.
"Republicans claimed victory when the sequester first took effect, and now they've decided it was a bad idea all along," Obama said, singling out the GOP even though the bill passed with overwhelming Democratic support in both chambers.
He scolded lawmakers for helping the Federal Aviation Administration while doing nothing to replace other cuts that he said harm federal employees, unemployed workers and preschoolers in Head Start.