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Political finger-pointing over Federal Aviation Administration furloughs intensified Monday, with congressional Republicans orchestrating a Twitter campaign aimed at blaming the Obama administration for flight delays.
The FAA began furloughing air-traffic-control operators Sunday, insisting budget cuts mandated by the sequester (PL 112-25) leave no alternative. Critics say the FAA has more discretion than it claims to adjust other spending accounts and has implemented the furloughs to turn up pressure on lawmakers to revoke or rework the sequester.
GOP lawmakers launched a coordinated social media offensive on Twitter, using the hashtag #ObamaFlightDelays. The tweets provided commentary by House leaders such as Speaker John A. Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster.
“Why is President Obama unnecessarily delaying your flight?” Cantor tweeted. “FAA can reprioritize.”
The Republican National Committee urged passengers with delayed flights to contact the White House — and provided the telephone number to make it convenient. As of Monday afternoon, there were only a handful of airports across the country reporting delays, according to the FAA website. Charlotte Douglas International Airport was citing staffing issues for departure delays, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport cited traffic management issues for departure delays greater than 45 minutes.
The New York area airports also reported delays but cited wind at LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International airports and runway maintenance at John F. Kennedy International. Longer delays linked to staffing issues were reported Sunday at Los Angeles International Airport.
Democrats have expressed concern about the furloughs, though they have blamed Republican unwillingness to reopen the sequester cuts.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the FAA’s plan to furlough controllers once every two weeks “a threat to our national economy and national security” but said it made no sense to force only the FAA to reprioritize its “devastating, arbitrary” cuts.
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the FAA should have been more proactive in giving the public and airlines notice about the furloughs. Agency leaders gave official word of the furlough start dates only last week.
“I am deeply disappointed that the agency has failed to inform the public on how dramatically their travel plans will be impacted in the days and weeks ahead,” Rockefeller said in a written statement. “The FAA immediately needs to do substantially more to explain the impact of sequestration on the traveling public.”
Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, complained that the FAA “last year spent $500 million on consultants and $325 million on supplies and travel.” Cantor said delays were “because the FAA chose not to reduce costs elsewhere.”
FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta has said repeatedly that the furloughs are necessary. The agency has made other cuts and recently postponed plans to close some air-traffic-control towers at smaller airports, but the cadre of air traffic controllers make up the largest single group on the Transportation Department’s payroll.
FAA’s warnings, which came last week, were fairly dire. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the nation’s busiest, could see delays of up to three hours, while users of New York’s three major gateways were told to expect waits of about an hour, the FAA said.
The warning led airlines to tell their customers to prepare for delays. United Airlines, for example, said about one-third of its passengers could be affected by sequester-related delays, particularly at its big hub airports such as Los Angeles International.