Senate rushes through legislation to end delays and cancellations, with House expected to approve bill on Friday

Congressional leaders have predicted they will have a deal in place by Friday to exempt air traffic controllers from sequester cuts that are causing thousands of plane delays across the US.

On Thursday night senators rushed through legislation without debate that allows 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 legislation will go back to the House of Representatives, which is expected to approve the measure as early as Friday, capping a feverish effort by Congress to end the flight delays that were snarling traffic at major US airports.

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.

Republican and Democratic leaders have been working at a frantic pace on legislation to protect aviation from the estimated $87bn across-the-board spending cuts.

Furloughs forced on air traffic control staff have seen flights cancelled and many others delayed. FlightStats reported that on Thursday alone up to mid-afternoon 107 flights had been cancelled and 3,387 delayed. The sequester cuts are being implemented by the Federal Aviation Administration after Republicans and Democrats failed to agree on a budget plan. Although the sequester began on 1 March the cuts have been slow to take effect; the flight disruption is now highly visible and it is set to become worse from 15 June when dozens of control towers are set to close.

The Republican senator John Thune had said on Thursday that he was working with a Democratic colleague, Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the commerce committee, on drafting a solution. Congress goes into recess on Friday. The White House has said it is prepared to accept a deal to exempt the airline industry if Congress passed a bill.

Democrats had been opposed to making an exemption, arguing that the Republicans needed to negotiate on an overarching budget plan rather than coming up with piecemeal solutions to individuals problems such as flight delays. The only exemption so far has been for food inspectors amid fears of creating a national health threat.

The Republican Senator Susan Collins said on the floor of the chamber: "These are simply irresponsible cuts that have real and detrimental impacts on the traveling public on the airline industry, on the hospitality industry and they will cause widespread delays to the air traffic system."

The change in position by the Democrats had been signalled by Senator Chuck Schumer. On Thursday he told a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor that while it would be better to figure out a way of tackling the whole sequester issue rather than piecemeal solutions, he recognised the FAA was among the worst hit by the squeeze. He would be open to the kind of plan being worked out by Thune and Rockefeller. But Republican senator John McCain, while expressing sympathy for frustrated air passengers, said there were areas such as defence where the need was more pressing. The air delays were receiving too much attention, he said.

On the wider budget there is still no sign of the budget stand-off being resolved. So far the Senate, the House and the White House have offered three budgets, all of which have been rejected by the opposing side. Members of Barack Obama's staff met Republican members of the Senate on Thursday to discuss potential ways to bridge the gap.

An alternative plan was floated by the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, who suggested raiding the overseas contingency fund used to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to fill in the gap in federal spending through to September.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

[Woman delayed in an airport via Shutterstock]