Air Traffic Controller Furlough: Is This the End Of It? No, But a Sign Of Easing, Perhaps


A friend of mine recently booked a trip to Scotland from Canada. To get from point A to point B, she had to go through Newark. I have also had a layover in Newark, and it’s not my favorite airport, but she almost did not make it there to be disgruntled over the interminably long terminals. Over the last two days, she has had delay after delay, extension after extension, including multiple trips through American customs and border control, all to be eventually re-routed to New York, because the Newark airspace was too crowded to accommodate her flight which was almost twelve hours behind schedule. Also, her departing airline did not want to compensate her for her time or waive the change flight fee, because it was not their fault.

Who was at fault, you ask? Why, the U.S. legislative branch. The “sequestration” of funds which forced air traffic controllers to take one day off every two weeks, unpaid, among other cuts in what is seen as discretionary spending.

With over forty thousand workers, more than a quarter of whom are controllers, the FAA does more than regulate the airports themselves. Its duties include the mapping of airspace and the control of air traffic noise, the issuing of pilots’ licenses, and the inspecting of commercial traffic through all the nation’s airports. The FAA’s air traffic controllers are the people who ensure that flights do not collide mid-air, or on the ground, working with each other and with pilots to keep accidents and in-air traffic jams, like the one that diverted my friend, to a minimum.

And you know, we in the U.S., we take our air travel seriously. So, in an emergency measure on Thursday, the Senate approved a temporary transfer of up to $253 million of funds, internally, in the Federal Aviation Administration. This is not a loan, or even a release of sequestered money, it merely allows the FAA to take money from elsewhere in its own budget (a portion titled “grants in aid for airports”) and use it for salaries for air traffic controllers. 

The bill specifies that in order to use the transferred money, the FAA must notify the Senate and Congress in writing five days before use. It’s as expected to hate the normal delays and frustrations of air travel as it is to hate the obstructionist tendencies of the government, but when something like the sequestration makes air travel almost grind to a standstill, we can appreciate swift action. If the bill is approved by Congress and signed by the president, and the FAA makes immediate use of it, then the airlines may be back in the business of losing our luggage by mid-next week.