By Bart Jansen and Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY
The Senate has passed a bill to end furloughs that have disrupted air travel across the USA.
Approval of the measure came without dissent. The House could take up the measure as early as Friday.
The legislation allows the Federal Aviation Administration to shift $253 million from other accounts to eliminate the furloughs and avoid closing 149 towers at small airports.
The FAA warned travelers about staffing challenges around en route centers at Cleveland, Washington, New York, and in regional control centers for Chicago, San Antonio, Southern California and Tampa, and specific towers for the New York-area and in Southwest Florida. Delays are expected in the New York area, Chicago O'Hare, Tampa and the regional Southwest.
The FAA says about 40% of flight delays nationwide this week can be blamed on furloughs.
On Wednesday, there were 863 flight delays based on staffing, and another 2,132 for weather or other reasons, according to the FAA, which tracks traffic delays but not taxiing and other airfield delays. The worst hit areas on Wednesday were New York, Washington, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Los Angeles.
On Tuesday, 1,025 delays were blamed on staffing and 975 on other causes, according to FAA. On Monday, 1,200 delays were blamed on staffing, with 1,400 on weather and other causes, according to the FAA.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, had suggested shifting money from an estimated $400 million in unused funds from a grant program for airport construction to fund the controllers.
She said taking $253 million from the fund would avoid "disastrous" furloughs and would allow 149 towers to remain open rather than closing June 15, as the FAA plans.
"The program has sufficient money to support this effort," said Collins, who serves on the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the FAA. "Our bill should be recognized as a one-time solution in order to avert these serious national impacts."
Momentum has been building to fix the FAA, even if a compromise for the rest of the government remains unclear.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., each supported a solution for the FAA, at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor. McCain said resolving funding for the military is also important.
"I'm glad to see all the focus on whether we have to wait longer or whether there's flight delays, but I wish to God the Congress of the United States would focus on the threats to our nation's security," McCain said.
"I certainly would be open to an FAA solution because the Transportation Department is under an undue amount of immediate squeeze," Schumer said.
The White House signaled Wednesday that a remedy just for FAA was possible, even though the administration would prefer a solution for all government spending.
"Now, if Congress wants to address specifically the problems caused by the sequester with the FAA, we would be open to looking at that," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "But that would be a Band-Aid measure."
The FAA must save $637 million by Sept. 30, under federal budget cutting. About $220 million would come from furloughs, $25 million from tower closures and the rest from curbing training, travel and information technology spending, according to the department.
US Airways CEO Doug Parker said he's "hopeful" that the outcry from the traveling public on the controller furloughs has begun to prod lawmakers to find a solution.
"It appears to be having some effect on our elected officials," Parker said Wednesday afternoon at US Airways' media day event in suburban Phoenix.
"This is a situation that is highly unfortunate," he adds. "It's untenable. It makes no sense. It's not fair to flying public. It's not fair to our employees."
Parker said his own flight from New York to Phoenix this week was delayed by about an hour in fallout from the controller staffing issue.
Parker says he was particularly dismayed upon hearing a deplaning passenger blame US Airways for the delay despite what Parker called a "heroic effort" by the flight crew to get back on schedule.
"That's not right," Parker said. "Our people did their job. Our government needs to do its job. Hopefully they've gotten the message now" and will resolve the problem.
Frustrated passengers also called for a solution to be agreed on in Washington.
Evan Shenkin, a New York resident, was scheduled to fly from Boston Logan Airport to JFK on Wednesday at 4:35 p.m. He boarded the plane but at 6:10 p.m. the captain informed the passengers that there would be another 2 and 1/2 delay and that they would have to disembark.
He switched over to an 8 pm flight from Boston to LaGuardia. At 7:30 p.m., that flight was pushed back to 9 p.m. He switched flights for a second time to one that had been scheduled to take off at 7 p.m. but was delayed to 8:30 p.m.
The Delta crew blamed the delays on the furloughs, he said.
"This is one of the worst flying experiences ever," he said.
Deborah Riegel, a motivational speaker, was also trying to get home to New York Wednesday night on a Delta flight. But there was a ground stop at LaGuardia so she sat on a runway at Atlanta's airport for an hour. That was after a 30-minute delay before boarding.
"It was inconvenient," she said. But more importantly, "air traffic controllers provide a critical public safety service," she said.
Contributing: Nancy Trejos