Senate passes bill to end air traffic control furloughs

By Richard Cowan and Doug Palmer/Reuters
April 26, 2013
Credit: Architect of the Capitol

The Senate moved quickly late on Thursday to end air traffic controller furloughs that were causing widespread airline flight delays related to last month’s automatic federal spending cuts.

Without any debate, the Senate unanimously passed legislation giving the Department of Transportation flexibility to use unspent funds to cover the costs of air traffic controllers and other essential employees at the Federal Aviation Administration.

The House of Representatives, which is expected to approve the measure, could take it up on Friday, capping a feverish effort by Congress to end the flight delays that were snarling traffic at major U.S. airports and angering travelers.

Some Senate aides said the measure would also give the FAA flexibility to keep open nearly 150 “contract towers” at smaller airports that are staffed by non-FAA employees who help control takeoffs and landings.

Explicit language to keep open those towers was not included in the measure, however, according to the aides, and it was not clear how the agency would handle the matter.

“I’m delighted that the Senate has just passed a bipartisan bill to resolve a serious problem confronting the American traveling public and our economy,” said Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of a handful of senators who wrote the legislation.

The bill moved with lightning speed in the Senate where legislation often bogs down for weeks or months. It was passed after a day of furious negotiations between lawmakers and the Obama administration.

The bill, if passed by the House, would close another chapter in a series of Washington battles over budget and taxes that have been waged since 2011.

The cause of the air traffic controller furloughs was the controversial “sequestration” that took effect on March 1, requiring across-the-board spending cuts among most federal agencies. With those cuts starting to bite, a public backlash prompted Congress to reconsider, and fully fund high-profile FAA operations.

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