A Rough Day for Huerta

The FAA Administrator gets an earful from lawmakers angry about the impact of controller furloughs.



FAA Administrator Michael Huerta got the chance to experience what it feels like to be raked over the coals yesterday as lawmakers at a House hearing expressed their mounting frustration over his agency's handling of sequester-related controller furloughs. It was uncomfortable to watch as House members bluntly told Huerta he did a poor job of preparing for the furloughs – first by not sharing information with airlines sooner and second by applying the furloughs blindly across the country without regard to traffic choke points. One Republican congressman called the FAA's performance "disgusting."

Huerta meekly defended himself by pointing out that he has been warning about the impact of furloughs since the start of the year. He also said the agency studied the “fairest” way to implement the furloughs and wanted to avoid “picking winners and losers.” That meant major hubs like Chicago, Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles were treated no differently than other parts of the country with smaller airports and less traffic.

Even lawmakers who admitted they know very little about how the National Air Transportation system works said that strategy seemed ill advised.

A number of Republican Congressmen have charged that the FAA’s actions in the run up to the furloughs weren’t about fairness, but rather making air travelers suffer as a form of political payback. Rep. Bill Shuster, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, accused the Obama Administration and the FAA of trying to cause “as much pain as they can to the traveling public.”

Representative Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the FAA had shown “a shocking lack of management” and didn’t provide nearly enough information about how the furloughs would be implemented or their potential impact on air travel.

“The entire administration has done the same thing, not told the Congress how the sequester will impact each agency,” Rogers said. “This imperial attitude on the part of the administration, and you’re the most recent example of that imperialism, is disgusting.”

Huerta said the FAA has already slashed as much money as possible from “non-pay” areas like outside contracts, IT, travel, and other areas, and the savings simply weren’t enough to reach the $637 million worth of cuts mandated by the sequester. Consequently, he said, the FAA had “no choice” but to furlough its 14,750 controllers two days a month in a plan that he admitted sacrifices efficiency yet preserves safety.

In an effort to stem some of the criticism, the White House yesterday afternoon said it would be open to adjusting the furloughs to ease travel delays and flight cancellations. The first three days of furloughs have caused 5,800 delays, a number that is only expected to rise as we enter the busy summer travel season. Now some lawmakers are crafting proposals that would give the FAA special latitude in how it applies the furloughs. But the timing isn't great: Congress leaves on a weeklong break tomorrow.

After what he was forced to endure yesterday, you can bet Huerta is praying somebody does something to fix this mess before he has to head back Capitol Hill and face the wrath of Congress again.