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Air traffic system to resume full operation, FAA says

NEW YORK -- The Federal Aviation Administration said the U.S. air traffic system will resume normal operations by Sunday evening after lawmakers rushed a bill through Congress allowing the agency to withdraw furloughs of air traffic controllers and other workers.

The FAA said Saturday that it has suspended all employee furloughs and that traffic facilities will begin returning to regular staffing levels over the next 24 hours. The furloughs were fallout from the $85 billion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts this spring.

The furloughs started to hit air traffic controllers this past week, causing flight delays that left thousands of travelers frustrated and furious. Planes were forced to take off and land less frequently, so as not to overload the remaining controllers on duty.

The FAA had to cut $637 million as its share of $85 billion in automatic, government-wide spending cuts that must be achieved by the end of the federal budget year on Sept. 30.

Flight delays piled up across the country Sunday and Monday of this week as the FAA kept planes on the ground because there weren't enough controllers to monitor busy air corridors. Cascading delays held up flights at some of nation's busiest airports, including New York, Baltimore and Washington. Delta Air Lines canceled about 90 flights Monday because of worries about delays. Just about every passenger was rebooked on another Delta flight within a couple of hours. Air travel was smoother Tuesday.

Things could have been worse. A lot of people who had planned to fly this week changed their plans when they heard that air travel might be difficult, according to longtime aviation consultant Daniel Kasper of Compass Lexicon.

"Essentially what happened from an airline's perspective is that people who were going to travel didn't travel," he said. But canceled flights likely led to lost revenue for airlines. Even if they didn't have to incur some of costs of fueling up planes and getting them off the ground, crews that were already scheduled to work still had to paid.

"One week isn't going to kill them, but had it gone on much longer, it would have been a significant hit on their revenues and profits," Kasper said.

The challenges this week probably cost airlines less than disruptions from a typical winter storm, said John F. Thomas, an aviation consultant with L.E.K. Consulting.

"I think the fact that it got resolved this week has minimized the cost as it was more the inconvenience factor," Thomas said.

The budget cuts at the FAA were required under a law enacted two years ago as the government was approaching its debt limit. Democrats were in favor of raising the debt limit without strings attached so as not to provoke an economic crisis, but Republicans insisted on substantial cuts in exchange. The compromise was to require that every government "program, project and activity" -- with some exceptions, like Medicare -- be cut equally.


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