is dropping its furlough plans for all 47,000 workers in its employee base after Congress last week passed a bill permitting the agency to shift up to $253 million in funds to prevent “reduced operations and staffing.”
But the agency still has not outlined plans on whether it also will continue to fund the contract air traffic control tower program or whether it will move forward with anticipated cuts. And other services, such as most preventative maintenance of navigational aids, are still going to be curtailed.
The Reducing Flight Delays Act, enacted just days after the first wave of FAA furloughs kicked in causing thousands of airline delays, is heading to the White House for President Obama’s signature. The White House called it a “Band-Aid” but also welcomed the bill, indicating that it will be signed.
The bill has been touted on Capitol Hill as a measure to end airline delays by putting controllers back to work and one that could avert planned closures of up to 149 contract air traffic control towers. The moves to furlough controllers and eliminate funding for 60% of the contract tower program are part of FAA’s effort to shave more than $600 million from its budget through the end of fiscal 2013 as required by sequestration.
Sequestration rules mandate that FAA implement cuts mostly from its operations account, but the bill lets the agency shift funds from the Airport Improvement Program to help ease pressure on the operations account. The bill, however, is only for fiscal 2013, which means future action will be required if sequestration continues into fiscal 2014. It also doesn’t stipulate how FAA should shift or direct the $253 million.
In a letter to employees April 27, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta say the legislation “will allow us to suspend the furloughs and return to a normal schedule.” An FAA statement released later on April 27 adds that the normal operations would be resumed within 24 hr. This was welcome news for Airlines For America (A4A), which had filed a suit to halt the controller delays. A4A says it now is dropping its lawsuit.
While the focus has been on air traffic controllers, the funding shifts mean FAA can end furloughs for all workers, including safety and certification inspectors, system specialists, FAA management and others. FAA had outlined a plan to curtail and slow services at its Flight Standards District Offices—including intermittent furlough day closures at some facilities—along with its Certification Service and in the Office of Aerospace Medicine. Those plans now will be set aside and operations will continue without interruption.
But though the bill permits FAA to shift funds to cover $258 million, it does not end the sequestration cuts. The agency notes it still needs to implement $380 million in savings. “To address this shortfall, the FAA will continue the cost-reduction efforts such as the hiring freeze and contract-reduction efforts that are now underway,” LaHood and Huerta told employees.
This means that travel will remain clamped down, which could continue to slow efforts to get FAA approvals for certification work. The FAA also still will not be taking proactive maintenance measures to prevent equipment failures, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) says. A spokesman for the union describes the practice as “akin to not changing the oil on your car until the engine seizes up.”
NATCA is rounding up examples of equipment failures and equipment on the verge of failing to make its case that this is another sequestration-related problem that needs to be addressed.
The continuation of the agency’s hiring freeze, which will mean a net loss of staffing, also continues to cause concern at NATCA, especially with about 3,000 controllers eligible for retirement. “Sequestration is not a good thing for the aviation system,” the spokesman says.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) shares NATCA’s equipment concerns, and adds that the sequester cuts at FAA—the total amount of which remains the same—will slow progress on the NextGen air traffic control system, too.
“We’ve kind of taken care of one half of the problem: keeping front line operations at their stations,” says Sean Cassidy, the union’s first vice president. ALPA is pleased Congress helped stop the furloughs, but Cassidy says the cuts that remain “are going to have an immediate impact on the ability to maintain the current equipment and a downrange impact on the ability to improve our systems, and that’s not good no matter how you cut it.”
The agency also has not yet clarified the “contract-reduction efforts” and whether that includes the contract tower program. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who has led a charge on Capitol Hill to preserve the contract tower program, last week is believed to have been assured by Senate leadership that the $258 million was enough to cover the towers along with FAA furloughs.
Moran and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who have co-authored a bill to prohibit closures of federal and contract towers through fiscal 2014, are expected to write a letter of congressional intent to accompany the bill to stipulate the reprogramming authority should also include the towers. Moran and other tower backers also have indicated that the plan is to keep the pressure on the administration to try to preserve the program.
Aviation groups still await word from FAA on the fate of the towers, says Heidi Williams, vice president of air traffic services and modernization for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Williams notes that while lawmakers support use of the reprogrammed funding to preserve the tower program, nothing in the bill actually mandates it. “There’s still many questions remaining,” she says.
But other contract cuts still are in place, including certified contact weather observers, who provided more detailed weather information over those given from the automated weather observation stations, Williams says, another AOPA concern.