Will Sequestration Make Flying the Skies Less Friendly?

“Eliminating air traffic control services at smaller airports will greatly affect this segment of air traffic because GA pilots rely on air traffic controllers on approach and takeoff,” according to a report from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “Of the towers that face the highest threat of closure, many primarily handle GA traffic. Without a controller physically present in these towers, more pilots will have to land and take off on their own, without the benefit of safety and separation services.”

The loss of air traffic control services can cause significant delays for general aviation pilots, the report said, because only one aircraft can arrive and/or depart at a time without air traffic services.

“Having reduced services at smaller airports will have a serious economic effect on communities that rely on air transit for businesses and other purposes,” the NATCA said.

Congressional Republicans have questioned the Obama administration’s assessment. In a joint statement, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Rep. Bill Shuster, (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, and Rep. Frank LoBiondo, (R-N.J.), chairman of House Subcommittee on Aviation, insisted that the FAA is “well positioned to absorb spending reductions without compromising the safety or efficiency of the National Airspace System.”

“We are disappointed by the administration creating alarm about sequestration’s impact on aviation,” the trio said. “Before jumping to the conclusion that furloughs must be implemented, the administration and the agency need to sharpen their pencils and consider all the options. Prematurely outlining the potential impacts before identifying other savings is not helpful.”

The GOP staff on the House Transportation Committee issued a report asserting that $200 million in as-yet unspent funding, money budgeted for consultants, slashing agency travel and imposing a hiring freeze would prove sufficient to cover the reductions.

“I find it hard to believe that you can’t find $30 million in savings per month, out of a pot of $7.4 billion,” Shuster said.

In the joint statement, Thune, Shuster and LoBiondo said the FAA has seen “significant funding increases” even though the airline industry is contracting.

“While domestic flights are down 27 percent from pre-9/11 levels, over the last 10 years the FAA’s annual budget has increased almost $3 billion, or 41 percent, in its operations account. Each year, the agency spends approximately $500 million on consultants and $200 million on supplies and travel.”

But the FAA responded that the proposal was based on some incorrect assumptions. It also noted that 71 percent of its budget is dedicated to salaries. Since sequestration is across-the-board instead of targeted, there’s no getting around reducing personnel costs.

“Sequestration will significantly and perhaps permanently undermine the capacity of the National Airspace System,” said Doug Church, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “The fact that they will not just be furloughing critical FAA personnel but closing air traffic control towers means the system will be even more compromised than anticipated.”

Church agreed that “safety will be preserved at the expense of operations across the country.” But he warned that “once towers are closed, the airports they serve may be next.”

“Additionally, we believe the delay estimates provided by the FAA are conservative and the potential for disruptions could be much higher,” he said. “Every one of these actions by the FAA will have an impact far beyond inconveniencing travelers. Local economies will be diminished, military exercises will be cancelled and jobs will be lost.”