FAA chief says his hands are tied from budget cuts

Matthew L. Wald / New York Times News Service /

Published Apr 25, 2013 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — In an increasingly partisan atmosphere, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration told skeptical Republicans on Wednesday that automatic budget cuts had forced the FAA to run somewhat like a starving airline: It has reduced its inventory of spare parts, stopped hiring and training new employees, and cut back on modernization.

The cuts imposed by Congress have made sharp reductions in staffing inevitable at airport control towers and radar rooms, said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, speaking to the transportation subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations. He said that he and others at the Transportation Department had been warning since February, before the sequester took effect, that it would cause layoffs that would create air traffic delays, adding that the agency had done everything it could to limit the impact.

But Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who is the chairman of the appropriations committee, said the agency had shown “a shocking lack of management” and suggested that the Obama administration was trying to wring maximum harm from a small budget cut.

Delays at airports across the country continued to be substantial but not overwhelming. The FAA said Wednesday that there had been 1,025 delays Tuesday attributable to staff shortages and 975 delays from other causes, including weather. Monday, the first weekday of sequester-level staffing, the agency said there were 1,200 delays because of short staffing and 1,400 because of weather.

Republicans have been arguing that the FAA should have cut contractors and consultants rather than staff. Over the years, however, the agency has saved money by contracting out many vital functions. Huerta noted that the largest single contract was to run the communications system that connects radios, radar and voice lines within the FAA’s national system, and the second-largest is for flight service stations, which provide weather data and other information to pilots.

The third-largest contract is for running control towers at small airports; when the FAA said it wanted to shut 149 of those, it faced a torrent of criticism and lawsuits.

“We have been working as diligently as we can to deal with what is an unmanageable situation,” Huerta said.

It was a “mathematical exercise” to determine that a 10 percent cut in staffing for controllers, safety inspectors and equipment technicians was essential, he said, because safety-related workers in the field make up 84 percent of the payroll in the operations department, and payroll is 70 percent of the budget for operations.

Operations comprise 61 percent of the agency’s budget.

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