US Senate approves plan to end FAA furloughs, reduce flight delays

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — The U.S. Senate approved a measure on Thursday aimed at ending budget-related air traffic controller furloughs that have been blamed for widespread flight delays this week.

A bipartisan agreement giving Transportation Department budget planners new flexibility for dealing with forced spending cuts cleared the chamber unanimously.

The House was expected to take up the proposal on Friday.

The plan additionally would allow authorities to protect 149 control towers at small and medium-sized airports that are slated for closure for budgetary reasons.

Controller furloughs and the planned closure of towers that are privately run but overseen by federal aviation regulators have become political flashpoints in the partisan-fueled debate over spending in Washington.

They have been highlighted by many to illustrate a clear nationwide consequence of the $85 billion in government-wide cuts that took effect in March and may otherwise not be apparent to the public.

Vocal and politically powerful aviation interests have argued that the budget cuts affecting their industry would hurt business, travelers and cost jobs. More than 600 million people fly U.S. airlines each year, figures show.

Furloughs impacting some 15,000 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controllers began this week with the agency saying it had no flexibility to avert them without action by Congress.

Under the sweeping austerity triggered by congressional inaction on deficit reduction, the FAA was required to slash $600 million from its budget.

The proposal approved by the Senate would allow the Transportation Department to adjust funding to “prevent reduced operations and staffing” for the remainder of the current federal budget year, which expires on September 30.

More than 863 flight delays were attributable to furlough-related staffing shortages on Wednesday at air traffic facilities in Chicago, New York, Washington, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Detroit and Dallas, the FAA said.

By comparison, there were more than 2,100 delays due to weather and other factors, the agency said.

Controllers are spacing planes farther apart at key centers so they can manage traffic with current staffing, the FAA said.

The deal designed to loosen the grip of spending cuts on aviation moved quickly through the Senate.

“Something rare has happened in Washington; the Senate came together on a bipartisan basis to put common sense before politics,” said Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins worried that continued FAA furloughs could jeopardize jobs throughout the travel and hospitality industry.

Earlier this spring, Congress approved a stop-gap budget law that would, among other things, ease budget cuts for the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and Veterans Affairs.

CNN’s Dana Bash and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report

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