WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn called out the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday for threatening to close air traffic control towers and furlough nearly 50,000 employees while the agency is holding conferences and posting job openings for a “community planners” and “program assistants.”
Coburn, R-Muskogee, sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose department includes the FAA, suggesting other cuts that could be made to save money and protect the safety of the flying public.
“Before considering cuts to essential services, I would encourage the Administration to first cancel all upcoming conferences, freeze all nonessential hiring, reconsider cuts to private control towers, and reduce funding for several low-priority programs before cutting costs that could impact flight safety,” Coburn said in his letter.
“The approximately $600 million in required savings from the FAA represents less than 4 percent of the FAA's $15.9 billion budget in fiscal year 2012. I am confident there are numerous options for savings that will not interfere with FAA's mission.”
Spending cuts that went into effect last week are forcing immediate cutbacks at most federal departments and agencies. The cuts are coming almost halfway through the fiscal year and department leaders have complained that they have little flexibility in carrying them out.
Coburn has written almost daily for the past week to the White House budget office and department leaders to point out spending that could be cut before top priorities are affected.
Earlier this week, the FAA began giving the required 30-day notice to employees that they might be furloughed beginning in April. The FAA has about 5,000 direct government employees at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City.
LaHood, who has warned that furloughing air traffic controllers could lead to flight delays of up to 90 minutes, has been criticized by some congressional Republicans for overstating the impact of the cuts.
An FAA spokesperson referred Thursday to a speech made this week by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who said the agency was looking at all options to reduce costs.
“We have instituted a hiring freeze, and have begun to cut contracts, travel and other items,” Huerta said. “But, to reach the large figure we need to cut, we have little choice but to make up the rest through furloughing employees. This is not something that we take lightly.”
Coburn, in his letter to LaHood, said the FAA is sponsoring a conference in August called the Second Annual Asia-Pacific Flight Standards Meeting.
“This forum should not be a higher priority than immediate air safety measures, and certainly the expense to the Administration for this conference is highly questionable at a time when employees are being furloughed,” Coburn wrote.
“In addition, the FAA recently listed two job openings for ‘community planners,' one of which was posted publicly after sequestration took effect. … Located in Brisbane, California, and Helena, Montana, these positions are advertised at $57,080 to $126,095.”
The agency has also posted job openings for four management and program assistants with salaries up to $59,000, Coburn said.
“Leaving these six job openings unfilled would hardly put a dent in the $600 million in savings that FAA needs to find, but they do amount to the full-time yearly salaries of four air traffic controllers,” Coburn said in his letter.
“That means they could offset a full week of furloughs for 208 air traffic controllers. These numbers may not be huge, but they illustrate an important point: FAA is not doing enough to seek out ways to save money without affecting their mission.”
Coburn also asked LaHood to provide the amount of money the FAA is spending on travel, conferences and salaries.