US Senate OKs bill to end air traffic control furloughs

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Senate passed quick-fix legislation on Thursday to end the furloughs of air traffic control staff that have triggered thousands of flight delays across the country in the past week.

The bill, which passed by unanimous consent following a public outcry over the delays, provides the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with some US$253 million (S$314 million) through October "to prevent reduced operations and staffing" that had begun to bite as a result of automatic US budget cuts.

The arbitrary cuts, known as sequestration, went into effect on March 1 because US lawmakers failed to strike a budget deal, and as of last Sunday, the FAA was forcing staff to take two unpaid days off per month.

The agency, which employs 47,000 people including some 13,000 air traffic controllers, is trying to achieve savings equal to five percent of its budget by September.

The new legislation provides FAA with some breathing room through the transfer of existing funds, while not adding new costs.

"We should not allow #sequestration to cripple travel, tourism, business & commerce," wrote Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, in a message on Twitter.

"Glad to lead a #bipartisan solution."

Several other senators tweeted out similar sentiments, including Republican Jerry Moran.

"Something rare happened in Washington - the Senate came together & put common sense before politics," Mr Moran wrote.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives.

The mandatory austerity is affecting all public services in the United States, with air traffic controllers working 10 percent fewer hours.

Lighter staffing has forced control towers to spread out landings and take-offs for safety reasons.

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