By Susan Redden
JOPLIN, Mo. —
With flight delays mounting, Congress on Friday approved legislation to end air traffic controller furloughs blamed for inconveniencing large numbers of travelers.
Steve Stockam, manager of the Joplin Regional Airport, said the measure passed by the Senate on Thursday “addresses our concerns — in the short term.”
The bill includes funding to avert the closing of 149 air traffic control towers that were to be shuttered June 15, Stockam said. The Joplin tower was on the clock for a Sept. 30 closing.
“Obviously, we want to put controllers back to work because the furloughs have slowed down traffic,” said Stockam. “We even experienced it here because flights coming out of Dallas were delayed.”
Under the legislation, which the Senate passed without even a roll call vote, the Federal Aviation Administration would gain authority to transfer up to $253 million from accounts that are flush into other programs, to “prevent reduced operations and staffing” through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.
In addition to restoring full staffing by controllers, Senate officials said the available funds should be ample enough to prevent the closure of small airport towers around the country. The FAA has said it will shut down the towers as it makes its share of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts — known as the sequester — that took effect last month at numerous government agencies.
The Senate acted as the FAA said there had been at least 863 flights delayed on Wednesday “attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough.”
Stockam said the specific language to protect the threatened towers had been removed from the bill, “but it’s implied and the funding is there.”
“It’s a good sign,” he said. “At least Congress has made the effort and the mechanism is there to restore the services. But it’s not a long-term fix. Joplin’s much more interested in next year’s budget, because that’s what’s going to affect us after Sept. 30.”
Stockam said he is hoping for passage of a bill sponsored by Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt that would keep essential federal employees on the job.
In a statement released Friday, Blunt said, “Moving forward, we need to pass the Essential Services Act to ensure critical federal employees like air traffic controllers must report to work and keep America moving.”
House Republican Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma said FAA employees “are being used as pawns by this (Obama) administration to be able to implement the maximum amount of pain on the American people when it does not have to be this way.”
The White House and congressional Democrats vociferously dispute such claims.
Joplin earlier had looked at joining one of several lawsuits that had been filed against the FAA and federal Department of Transportation concerning the proposed tower closings.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Officials estimate it would cost slightly more than $200 million to restore air traffic controllers to full staffing, and another $50 million to keep open smaller air traffic towers around the country that the Federal Aviation Administration has proposed closing.