By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Flight delays in the United States linked to the furlough of thousands of air traffic controllers have not been as bad as expected so far, the head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said on Wednesday.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told lawmakers the agency could not find the kind of "sizeable" non-payroll budget cuts that would have avoided furloughs and the resulting flight delays, but added that passenger safety is not at risk.
"We are focused on maintaining our core operational and safety responsibilities," Huerta told a House appropriations subcommittee hearing on the agency's 2014 budget request. "We will not do anything to compromise safety."
The FAA has said will furlough 47,000 employees for up to 11 days through the end of the fiscal year in September as part of its plan to meet $637 million in required spending cuts. Nearly 13,000 of those employees are air traffic controllers.
Bipartisan legislation was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday to provide the U.S. Department of Transport, which administers the FAA, the flexibility to transfer funds between accounts in order to abate air traffic controller furloughs. The immediate prospects for the bill were unclear.
Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, asked Huerta why the agency did not manage furloughs to maintain higher staffing levels at major hubs versus regional airports.
"We concluded we couldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers between particular hubs, particular facilities," Huerta said, adding that conducting the furloughs unequally would still result in significant delays while being unfair to employees.
Among major hubs, Huerta said Chicago's O'Hare International Airport had not seen "significant impacts" this week, and that delays at Atlanta's Hartsfield International have not been as bad as models might have predicted. The busy summer travel season is still a wildcard, he added.
Ed Pastor, the ranking Democrat on the panel, pressed Huerta on how aggressively the agency had tried to adapt to its budget cuts. The FAA has authority to move 2 percent of its operational budget without congressional approval.
"We have taken full advantage of the flexibilities we have" in terms of budget, but "we simply couldn't not get to" the $637 million in cuts required under sequestration for fiscal 2013 without idling staff, Huerta said.
Huerta was also quizzed about whether the FAA had asked for flexibility within its overall budget to preserve funds for air traffic operations as well as on why the agency was still paying overtime to employees.
"We have dramatically reduced all scheduled overtime and are preserving overtime to deal with emergency situations," he said.
The FAA has had a hiring freeze since the start of the year, has canceled contracts with many contract and temporary employees and has cut back on staff travel, training, IT expenses and other costs, Huerta said.
"We have had big savings ... we simply could not get to the number," he said, noting repeatedly that 70 percent of FAA's operations budget is for salaries.
Air travelers in the United States have experienced delays at some airports this week as the furloughs of air traffic controllers got under way.
The delays have been spotty. Early on Wednesday, Los Angeles International airport was experiencing 45-minute delays on some arriving planes that the FAA attributed to staffing, but other airports were mostly operating normally, according to the FAA.
(Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Alwyn Scott, G Crosse and Bernard Orr)