By Richard Cowan and Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate moved quickly late on Thursday to end air traffic controller furloughs that were causing widespread airline flight delays related to last month's automatic federal spending cuts.
Without any debate, the Senate unanimously passed legislation giving the Department of Transportation flexibility to use unspent funds to cover the costs of air traffic controllers and other essential employees at the Federal Aviation Administration.
The House of Representatives, which is expected to approve the measure, could take it up on Friday, capping a feverish effort by Congress to end the flight delays that were snarling traffic at major U.S. airports and angering travelers.
Some Senate aides said the measure would also give the FAA flexibility to keep open nearly 150 "contract towers" at smaller airports that are staffed by non-FAA employees who help control takeoffs and landings.
Explicit language to keep open those towers was not included in the measure, however, according to the aides, and it was not clear how the agency would handle the matter.
"I'm delighted that the Senate has just passed a bipartisan bill to resolve a serious problem confronting the American traveling public and our economy," said Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of a handful of senators who wrote the legislation.
The bill moved with lightning speed in the Senate where legislation often bogs down for weeks or months. It was passed after a day of furious negotiations between lawmakers and the Obama administration.
The bill, if passed by the House, would close another chapter in a series of Washington battles over budget and taxes that have been waged since 2011.
The cause of the air traffic controller furloughs was the controversial "sequestration" that took effect on March 1, requiring across-the-board spending cuts among most federal agencies. With those cuts starting to bite, a public backlash prompted Congress to reconsider, and fully fund high-profile FAA operations.
Lawmakers are eager to fix the air travel problem before they head out of town for next week's congressional recess. They are concerned about deepening public resentment over the delays caused by the furloughs of controllers.
Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who also negotiated the legislation, applauded its quick passage, but added, "It does nothing for other essential government operations and employees that also desperately need relief."
Airline passengers have grown increasingly irritated over the past week with delays at major hubs like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Some have reported delays of several hours in takeoff times and planes being put in holding patterns in the air. Many pilots blame furloughs for landing delays.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said on Thursday that many of the 1,978 controller trainees were now working full shifts by themselves to help cover staffing shortages.
Airline executives had ratcheted up their complaints. "This is government not working - capital letters, exclamation point - when we're sitting here holding the traveling public hostage in the midst of sequestration," JetBlue Chief Executive Dave Barger said on a conference call on Thursday.
The FAA has said it had no alternative to furloughing controllers this week after Congress failed to come up with a budget deal that would have averted the $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts between March 1 and September 30.
At the same time, the FAA has emphasized that passenger safety is not at risk. Airlines for America, the trade organization for U.S. airlines, also said on Thursday the furloughs had not created a safety issue.
While Republicans joined the effort for a quick fix, many were skeptical about whether the White House and FAA were taking advantage of flexibility they already had.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of maximizing the disruptions to try to shift budget blame on Republicans, an allegation the administration has denied. Republicans have created a Twitter hashtag, #Obamaflightdelays, for people to complain about the delays.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, sent a letter on Thursday to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking for internal documents discussing budget flexibilities. The Department of Transportation said it was reviewing the request.
But a congressional aide involved in the original automatic spending cut legislation that was enacted in August 2011 told Reuters the administration could not under current law shift money from outside accounts to fund the air traffic controller account.
Without the legislation, the FAA said it would have to furlough 47,000 employees for up to 11 days through September 30 in order to save $637 million that is required by the sequestration.
Of those 47,000 workers, almost 15,000 are full-time air traffic controllers or trainees.
The FAA issued an update that said more than 863 delays in the system on Wednesday were attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furloughs.
An additional 2,132 delays were attributed to weather and other factors, the FAA said. The agency said it would work with airlines to minimize delays.
Airlines, many of which are reporting earnings this week, have pushed the government to quickly ease the flight delays caused by the furloughs.
Jeff Smisek, chairman and chief executive of United Continental Holdings Inc, said his company's network operations center was working around the clock to minimize the impact of fewer controllers.
"We are disappointed that the FAA chose this path, that maximizes customer disruptions and damage to airlines instead of choosing a less disruptive method to comply with the budget obligations," Smisek said on a conference call.
The proposal being weighed would not spare other agencies and federal programs from the across-the-board reductions.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Doug Palmer, Thomas Ferraro, David Lawder, Karen Jacobs and Nivedita Bhattacharjee; Writing by Karey Van Hall; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)