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(NECN: Peter Howe, Logan International Airport, Boston)- Bowing to public outrage – and personal inconvenience – after hundreds of flights delays blamed on air traffic controllers being furloughed, the U.S. House on Friday followed the Senate in rapidly enacting legislation ending the control-tower furloughs.
As of Friday evening, President Obama was indicating he would sign the legislation, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood refused to say when air-traffic control operations will return to full strength. Required to cut $637 million from its nearly $16 billion budget by the sequester – about 4 percent of total spending – the FAA said it had no choice but to impose a 10 percent staffing reduction through the furloughs for the second half of the budget year.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney and leading Democrats complained this was a case of congressmen and senators, many of whom fly at least twice a week, rapidly responding to a cut they could personally feel, while refusing to deal with many less visible sequester cutbacks affecting needy seniors, children, and national defense readiness.
But many say in voting to end the FAA furloughs, what an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress voted to end was a needless political stunt.
Rep. Tom Latham, an Iowa Republican, said, "The safety of airspace cannot be subject to political posturing."
Obama and LaHood came under intense criticism that there were all sorts of other places in the FAA budget they could have cut less important spending without having to furlough controllers, and the furlough moved appeared to be specifically designed to cause flight delays, annoy passengers, and create political blowback on Congress, especially Republican House leaders.
Among the many criticisms of how the FAA imposed the furloughs: They amounted to 10 percent of staff time across the board, a forced day off every other week, regardless of whether it was at a very busy air traffic control tower at an airport like Boston Logan or Newark Liberty International or Hartsfield Jackson International in Atlanta – or a much less busy secondary airport out in rural parts of the country.
Rep. Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican, said: "To treat O'Hare Airport with 8,000 flights a day in the exact same fashion that Waterloo, Iowa, with 80 flights a day is treated, is ridiculous."
At Logan, passengers said they had felt the brunt of the furloughs in delays.
"You know, it sure seems like a lot more could get done" in Washington, "that we wouldn't have to be the ones held hostage as a result," said Gino Tenace, a health care executive from Nashville, Tenn., who said both his flights to Boston and back home got snarled by the furlough fight. "It’s just caused, both coming here and leaving, delays, and the airline was very clear that it wasn't them doing it, that there were air-traffic-control holds on the flight."
Will McAllister of Kirkland, Wash., said: "I’m sure that the decision to furlough so many air traffic controllers early was political. And it accomplished its purpose, because the Senate had to react, and they did."
Democrats complained that fixing the FAA’s air traffic control budget still did nothing about the remaining trillion dollars in across-the-board cuts. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, said, "We’re just fooling ourselves if we think that we're doing ourselves -- the American people -- any favors by not finding a real solution."
But for now, Congress can say it has moved to solve a problem Washington created that was annoying hundreds of thousands of travelers every day. Said Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona: "I don’t have to now wear a mask or a disguise when I go through the airport, I'm happy to say."
With videographer John E. Stuart and video editor Lauren Kleciak. NBC News video was used in this report.