Travel already has been reduced, mainly to trips to keep the air traffic system functioning, like sending a technician to a facility to resolve an equipment problem, Huerta said. Overtime is being preserved for emergencies.
The largest of the agency's operations contracts is to provide and maintain a communications system for air traffic operations. The second-largest contract is for provision of weather, information on flight restrictions and other services to pilots. And the third largest pays companies to provide controllers for towers at small airports. The FAA's proposal to save money by shutting down 149 of the towers already has drawn complaints from lawmakers in both parties who don't want airports in their states and districts to lose towers.
"I would have to take the administration's position on this," said Bill Hoagland, a former Republican Senate Budget Committee aide who helped write a 1985 budget law that was the model for the current budget-cutting law. "They are administering the law as written."
The budget law is specifically worded so that cuts are spread evenly across programs, making it difficult for the FAA to use money for contracts, for example, to make up for payroll cuts even through both are in the same budget "account," he said.
At a news conference Thursday, congressional Republicans said if the FAA had to furlough controllers, it should have furloughed more of them in places like Waterloo, Iowa, instead of at big hub airports.
The FAA decided against doing that because it would mean picking winners and losers among airlines and regions of the country, Huerta said. Also, the air traffic system is by its nature interconnected -- small airports are needed to feed passengers to the bigger hubs, he said.
Lawmakers also have complained that the FAA didn't warn them that air traffic disruptions were coming.
"How come you didn't tell us about this beforehand, the sequester, impact on the layoffs, the furloughs? Not a word. Not a breath," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., angrily demanded of Huerta at a hearing this week.
Airline and airport officials say they didn't receive specific information from the FAA about how the furloughs might affect air travel until a meeting called by the agency on April 16, six days before the furloughs took effect. Airport officials said they weren't invited and had to push the FAA to allow them to come to the meeting.
In fact, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA officials have been warning Congress and airlines since February that the furloughs were coming and that they could cause major delays. LaHood even held a news conference at the White House. Administration officials also discussed the impending furloughs at congressional hearings in March and earlier this month.
However, lawmakers and industry officials also have a point. In none of those hearings did FAA or Transportation Department officials go out of their way to disclose to Congress the extent of the anticipated flight delay mess, even though they had that information in hand at three hearings last week. Nor did they solicit help from Congress to avoid the furloughs. Rather, officials emphasized that safety would be maintained.
"We offered our apologies to them for the fact that we had not kept them informed about all of the things that we had been discussing," LaHood told reporters after a meeting Wednesday with Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the senior Republican member of the committee, to discuss possible legislation to resolve the situation.