Senate Passes Bill to End Air Traffic Control Furloughs

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J. Scott Applewhite/APSen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, center, an author of legislation, passed by the Senate late Thursday, that ends air traffic controller furloughs, which have resulted in flight delays.
By Richard Cowan and Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate moved quickly late on Thursday to end air traffic controller furloughs that were causing widespread airline flight delays related to last month's automatic federal spending cuts.

Without any debate, the Senate unanimously passed legislation giving the Department of Transportation flexibility to use unspent funds to cover the costs of air traffic controllers and other essential employees at the Federal Aviation Administration.

The House of Representatives, which is expected to approve the measure, could take it up on Friday, capping a feverish effort by Congress to end the flight delays that were snarling traffic at major U.S. airports and angering travelers.

Some Senate aides said the measure would also give the FAA flexibility to keep open nearly 150 "contract towers" at smaller airports that are staffed by non-FAA employees who help control takeoffs and landings.

Explicit language to keep open those towers wasn't included in the measure, however, according to the aides, and it wasn't clear how the agency would handle the matter.

"I'm delighted that the Senate has just passed a bipartisan bill to resolve a serious problem confronting the American traveling public and our economy," said Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of a handful of senators who wrote the legislation.

The bill moved with lightning speed in the Senate where legislation often bogs down for weeks or months. It was passed after a day of furious negotiations between lawmakers and the Obama administration.

The bill, if passed by the House, would close another chapter in a series of Washington battles over budget and taxes that have been waged since 2011.

The cause of the air traffic controller furloughs was the controversial "sequestration" that took effect on March 1, requiring across-the-board spending cuts among most federal agencies. With those cuts starting to bite, a public backlash prompted Congress to reconsider, and fully fund high-profile FAA operations.

Lawmakers are eager to fix the air travel problem before they head out of town for next week's congressional recess. They are concerned about deepening public resentment over the delays caused by the furloughs of controllers.

Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who also negotiated the legislation, applauded its quick passage, but added, "It does nothing for other essential government operations and employees that also desperately need relief."

Angry Travelers

Airline passengers have grown increasingly irritated over the past week with delays at major hubs like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Some have reported delays of several hours in takeoff times and planes being put in holding patterns in the air. Many pilots blame furloughs for landing delays.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said on Thursday that many of the 1,978 controller trainees were now working full shifts by themselves to help cover staffing shortages.

Airline executives had ratcheted up their complaints. "This is government not working -- capital letters, exclamation point -- when we're sitting here holding the traveling public hostage in the midst of sequestration," JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU) Chief Executive Dave Barger said on a conference call on Thursday.

The FAA has said it had no alternative to furloughing controllers this week after Congress failed to come up with a budget deal that would have averted the $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts between March 1 and Sept. 30.

At the same time, the FAA has emphasized that passenger safety isn't at risk. Airlines for America, the trade organization for U.S. airlines, also said on Thursday the furloughs hadn't created a safety issue.

While Republicans joined the effort for a quick fix, many were skeptical about whether the White House and FAA were taking advantage of flexibility they already had.

Republicans have accused the Obama administration of maximizing the disruptions to try to shift budget blame on Republicans, an allegation the administration has denied. Republicans have created a Twitter hashtag, #Obamaflightdelays, for people to complain about the delays.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, sent a letter on Thursday to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking for internal documents discussing budget flexibilities. The Department of Transportation said it was reviewing the request.

But a congressional aide involved in the original automatic spending cut legislation that was enacted in August 2011 told Reuters the administration could not under current law shift money from outside accounts to fund the air traffic controller account.

Sequestration Fallout

Without the legislation, the FAA said it would have to furlough 47,000 employees for up to 11 days through Sept. 30 in order to save $637 million that is required by the sequestration.

Of those 47,000 workers, almost 15,000 are full-time air traffic controllers or trainees.
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The FAA issued an update that said more than 863 delays in the system on Wednesday were attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furloughs.

An additional 2,132 delays were attributed to weather and other factors, the FAA said. The agency said it would work with airlines to minimize delays.

Airlines, many of which are reporting earnings this week, have pushed the government to quickly ease the flight delays caused by the furloughs.

Jeff Smisek, chairman and chief executive of United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL), said his company's network operations center was working around the clock to minimize the impact of fewer controllers.

"We are disappointed that the FAA chose this path, that maximizes customer disruptions and damage to airlines instead of choosing a less disruptive method to comply with the budget obligations," Smisek said on a conference call.

The proposal being weighed wouldn't spare other agencies and federal programs from the across-the-board reductions.

Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, David Lawder, Karen Jacobs and Nivedita Bhattacharjee; writing by Karey Van Hall.

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Tipping Tips for Travelers
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Senate Passes Bill to End Air Traffic Control Furloughs

When Lance Huntley, an actor and director from San Francisco, visited Istanbul last year, he made sure to diligently follow tipping guidelines.

Good thing he did his homework. At one restaurant, the check included a 15 percent gratuity, and Huntley paid the bill and thanked the waiter. On the way to the door, the waiter stopped him. "You didn't like my service?" he asked. When Huntley expressed surprise, the waiter said that the included gratuity on the check was, "For the moon... the view... the basket of bread. Not for me." Because he had done his research, Huntley knew the waiter was simply trying to get more money from him, so he politely excused himself.

Those who don't read the bill carefully might be at risk of either offending their hosts or emptying their wallet.

Renee H. Kimball, the owner of Tranquilo Bay in Panama, adds a small gratuity to guests' bills, and discusses it with them beforehand. Far from being a hidden resort charge, Kimball says it benefits both the guests and her staff. "We don't want people to feel like they have to pull their wallet out and tip people as they move their bags around," she says.

In Panama, where the standard tip is 10 percent, the added gratuity equals less than 5 percent. Guests frequently add on to the standard gratuity, but in case of cheapskate guests, the staff still receives a small amount. For guests who ask, Kimball also discusses tipping etiquette, but doesn't bring it up unless approached.

It's not just what country you're in that determines whether or not a gratuity is included in the bill. In some places, like all-inclusive resorts, or when larger groups engage in an activity, a surcharge is automatically added. So be sure to check.

Travel expert Casey Wohl, known as The Getaway Girl, says that certain tips are standard in the U.S. "For taxi or limo drivers, a $2 to $3 tip is usually satisfactory, but more is recommended if the driver helps you with bags or provides special service." And let's say you fall down a mountain while traveling and the driver waits with a wheelchair at the airport. That extra bit of service deserves a little something more. Porters, bellmen, parking attendants, and cloakroom attendants should be tipped $1 to $2 each, unless there's a charge for the service.

Hire someone for a helicopter tour of a glacier or for protection in the wilderness? When booking such a tour, ask if the rates include tips, advises Kimball. Tip a couple of dollars per person, per day, if gratuity isn't already included.
The exception? Federal employees like National Park Rangers or National Forest Rangers aren't allowed to accept cash gratuities, even for exceptional service. Gratitude, granola bars, and a drink at the local pub, however, are often most welcome.

Tipping abroad can be vastly different from tipping in the States. In some cultures, it's considered arrogant for Americans to leave money on the table after a meal; in others, it's rude not to. And while it might not be the smartest move to ask a taxi driver from the airport to the hotel how much to give, checking for advice at the local visitors' center can help avoid creating an international incident.

For a guide to overseas tipping, check out Mint.com's Tipping Etiquette Around the World.

Travelers can recognize and appreciate exceptional service in a variety of ways -- from complimenting a particularly gracious employee to his or her manager to bringing back a trinket from the day's explorations.

Neven Gibbs says that one of the best tips he ever received while working in Las Vegas as a tour bus driver was for helping an elderly man with a broken cane into his hotel. The man gave Gibbs 50 cents. "He said to go buy a good 'seegar' with it," Gibbs recalls. "Sometimes it is the 'thank you' that is worth so much more than the money. Consider who it comes from, and why they gave it."

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