US & Canada

Congress passes bill to end widespread airline delays

Plane takes off past an air traffic control tower in Los Angeles, California 22 April 2013
Image caption Airline bosses say the unpaid leave adds uncertainty to their operations

US lawmakers have approved measures to ease travel delays caused by unpaid leave for air traffic controllers as a result of budget cuts.

The US House of Representatives voted 361-41 in favour of a plan passed by the Senate on Thursday that would cover the essential aviation staff's costs.

The bill allows the Federal Aviation Administration to move up to $253m (£163m) from other accounts.

The air regulator said the unpaid leave caused 853 flight delays on Wednesday.

The FAA has had to cut $637m from its budget as part of an $85bn government-wide deficit reduction plan, known as sequestration, that began last month.

'Wildcat regulatory action'

As a result, the FAA has reduced the work schedules of nearly all of its 47,000 employees by one day every two weeks.

The staff include air traffic controllers and technicians who keep airport towers and radars working.

President Barack Obama would now sign the bill, said White House press secretary Jay Carney, even though it fell short of broader action needed to address sequestration.

"Ultimately, this is no more than a temporary Band-Aid that fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester's mindless, across-the-board cuts," said Mr Carney.

President Obama had favoured wider action that would ease the budget cuts for federal agencies.

The legislation would end the unpaid leave and allow for enough funding to prevent the closure of towers at small airports around the country.

But correspondents say it is not clear how quickly services will be restored to normal.

Thursday's Senate vote followed many hours of closed-door negotiations and the departure of several lawmakers - who had apparently given up hope of a deal - for a week-long recess.

A small group of senators insisted on reaching an agreement before the holiday, amid warnings of political repercussions from continued airport delays.

Airlines and unions representing airport employees have been pushing for a resolution in Congress.

Robert Isom, head of operations at US Airways, said the FAA furloughs were like a "wildcat regulatory action".

"In the airline business, you try to eliminate uncertainty," he said. "Some factors you can't control, like weather. [The FAA issue] is worse than the weather."