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Monday, May 20, 2013

Sequestration at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA): Air Traffic Controller Furloughs and Congressional Response

Bart Elias
Specialist in Aviation Policy

Clinton T. Brass
Specialist in Government Organization and Management

Robert S. Kirk
Specialist in Transportation Policy

In response to across-the-board funding reductions in federal programs through the budget sequestration process implemented in FY2013, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began to furlough personnel, including air traffic controllers, on April 21, 2013. In conjunction with air traffic controller furloughs, FAA implemented various air traffic management initiatives to mitigate impacts of the reduced staffing on controller workload. This resulted in some delays affecting about 3%-4% of flights, with some acute delay impacts occurring in congested airspace, particularly in the New York City area.

Amid concerns over the impacts of air traffic controller furloughs, Congress passed the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 (P.L. 113-9). The act authorized FAA to transfer up to $253 million from funding available for airport grants or other FAA programs and accounts to the FAA operations account for necessary costs to prevent reduced operations and staffing and ensure a safe and efficient air transportation system. Following passage of this legislation in Congress, FAA suspended all employee furloughs and resumed air traffic control operations under normal procedures and full staffing levels.

Prior to the April 2013 furloughs, FAA furloughed employees in the summer of 2011. However, the FAA furlough actions associated with sequestration had a different legal basis and were consequently implemented quite differently. The summer 2011 furloughs arose as a result of a lapse in authority to collect Airport and Airways Trust Fund (AATF) revenues, the sole funding source for FAA’s facilities and equipment (F&E) account, the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), and research, engineering, and development activities. Expenditure authority for AIP also expired in the summer of 2011. The expiration of these authorities resulted in immediate furloughs for most employees funded from these accounts. Some employees funded through the F&E account responsible for ensuring the safety and reliability of navigation and communications equipment were ordered to stay on the job. Employees paid through FAA’s operations account, including air traffic controllers, were not furloughed in 2011.

Certain AIP grants-in-aid funds for airport development and planning are now subject to provisions of the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013. It appears that the transfer of the designated AIP discretionary funds to air traffic operations reduces the amount made available to airports under 49 U.S.C. 48103. This has implications for both the eventual spending of AIP discretionary funds and the calculation of the amount of AIP entitlement funding available for distribution.

  • Unless Congress takes further action, the transferred funds will eventually lead to real reductions in AIP discretionary spending. 
  • FAA may need to stop or reduce its AIP discretionary grant making for the remainder of FY2013 to comply with the act. 
  • Individual airports’ formula “entitlements” could be reduced for the remainder of the fiscal year if FAA transfers most or all of the $253 million allowed under the act.

Date of Report: May 7, 2013
Number of Pages: 13
Order Number: R43065
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