Will Sequestration Make Flying the Skies Less Friendly?
WASHINGTON – The nation’s air travelers will be among the first to feel the pinch of across-the-board cuts in the federal budget – and it promises to be an unpleasant experience.
Delays reaching 90 minutes are expected to face passengers at many airports as the Federal Aviation Administration implements personnel furloughs to deal with a sequestration expected to reduce anticipated spending by 5 percent this year. General aviation could experience the most significant blow as a result of plans to close more than 100 air traffic control facilities at smaller airports – those with fewer than 150,000 flight operations per year -- frequented by private pilots.
The cuts will take FAA funding back to 2010 levels. Congressional Republicans, though, say the administration is being alarmist about the reductions.
“Sequestration will have a serious impact on the transportation services that are critical to the traveling public and the nation’s economy,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has announced plans to leave the Obama administration. “At DOT we will need to cut nearly a billion dollars, which will affect dozens of our programs. Over $600 million of those cuts will need to come from the Federal Aviation Administration – the agency that controls and manages our nation’s skies.”
As a result of the cuts, LaHood said, most of the FAA’s nearly 47,000 employees – including 15,000 air traffic controllers -- will be furloughed for approximately one day per pay period until Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year. In some cases employees will be forced to take off two days without pay. The agency is looking to eliminate the overnight shift for air traffic controllers at more than 60 facilities.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta reported that his agency already has initiated a hiring freeze and cut travel to meet sequestration demands. The furlough plan is scheduled to begin on about April 7 after a required notification period to affected workers.
The loss of personnel ultimately will result in significant delays, LaHood said, insisting “we will only allow the amount of air traffic we can handle safely to take off and land.”
Major facilities, like those located in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, could face 90-minute delays during peak hours as a result of reductions in air traffic control personnel. Preventative maintenance and quick repair of runway equipment will likely be curtailed, exacerbating the delay problem.
The dark picture for travelers comes as a result of an agreement between the White House and Congress resulting in budget cuts amounting to $1 trillion over the next nine years. The agreement was struck in the summer of 2011 when House Republicans balked at an administration request to raise the nation’s debt limit and demanded substantial budget cuts.
The two sides reached a deal, suggested by President Obama, to create a “Super Committee” charged with developing budget recommendations that could be implemented by Jan. 1, 2013. If the panel failed to reach an agreement, the legislation called for across-the-board spending reductions. to be shared by defense and non-defense programs, although Social Security, Medicaid, federal retirement, several anti-poverty programs, military pay, and the price tag for ongoing wars were exempted.
The Super Committee failed to reach concurrence but a last-minute deal struck by the administration and congressional Republicans over what became known as the “fiscal cliff” delayed sequestration to March 1. As part of that deal, the sides agreed to permit Bush-era tax cuts for those earning $250,000 or more to expire, thus reducing the amount required for sequestration to about $1 trillion over nine years.
Now lawmakers and the White House have hit the deadline without agreeing on a plan to replace sequestration. That requires an $85 billion reduction in anticipated spending this year with the FAA taking a $600 million hit.
While airline passengers will certainly suffer under the Department of Transportation’s scenario, the plan is expected to have the biggest effect on general aviation. Overall, the anticipated facility closures will result in a 30 percent reduction in control tower service – most of it targeted at private aviation.
“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.”