Washington Plays Budget Blame Game on Flight Delays

WASHINGTON – The consequences of across-the-board spending cuts forced on the federal government, better known as sequestration, have landed at the nation’s airports, according to the FAA, and the only thing uglier than the long lines at ticket counters and tote boards announcing further delays are the recriminations winging between Democrats and Republicans.

The furlough program instituted by the Federal Aviation Administration to deal with the budget cuts went into effect on Monday, resulting in long delays and cancelled flights across the nation as control towers operated with fewer air traffic controllers.

Since Sunday, 10 percent of the FAA workforce has been on furlough. Each employee faces up to 11 forced days off before Sept. 30 unless changes are made to the sequestration law. About 15,000 air traffic controllers are affected.

According to the FAA, more than 1,200 air system delays attributable to staffing reductions occurred on Monday, with more than 1,400 additional delays coming as a result of weather. The situation improved on Tuesday – by a bit. The agency reported more than 1,025 delays attributable to furloughs and 975 additional delays caused by other factors.

During the worst day at America’s airports in 2012, about 3,000 flights were delayed. That number could double on a daily basis under sequestration, the agency claims.

Appearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies on Wednesday, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told lawmakers that his agency had no options.

“We have to reduce our budget by $637 million between now and September 30,” he said, noting that the various grant programs were exempt under the sequester, meaning the cuts “fall disproportionately on the operating side of the budget.”

The furloughs will save the FAA about $220 million.

“To reach the large number we need to reach by Sept. 30, we have no choice but to look at furloughs,” he said. “It will have no effect on safety but what will suffer will be efficiency. When we have to reduce the number of controllers we have available to handle air traffic, what it means is that we have to do such things as combine sectors, and we need to reduce arrival rates at major airports and we need to reduce departure rates at major airports and the capacity of our major on route facilities. The results from that are ground delay programs. What we’re focused on first and foremost is to retain safety.”

The explanations did little to assuage Republicans who blame President Obama for failing to take steps to soften the blow of sequestration. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told Huerta that the panel wasn’t informed of the consequences on air travel, asserting that “this imperial attitude is disgusting.”

Rogers rejected claims that Congress, which wrote and passed the sequester legislation signed by Obama, was to blame for the situation and said that the president should have “come to the table” to develop ways around it.

“Instead he just starts shutting down airports,” Rogers said.

Democrats said the GOP shouldn’t be surprised at the results of the legislation they supported.

“Some here in Washington, D.C., claim that the effect of such cuts will be minimal but (Transportation) Secretary (Roy) LaHood has spoken out about the real impact these cuts will have on the FAA and our aviation system,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “He talked about how sequestration means that the FAA will furlough its air traffic controllers, close down contract towers…’’

Murray said the FAA made it clear that it wouldn’t sacrifice safety.

“Instead, the agency will reduce its services while ensuring air travel remains safe,” Murray said. “However, reductions in air traffic control services will translate directly into an increase in travel delays.”