'Sequester' in US skies: Is an FAA 'calamity' avoidable?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the 'sequester' will force the FAA to furlough air traffic controllers, creating an air travel nightmare. Some Republicans are calling this a scare tactic.

Larry Downing/Reuters
A jet departs Washington's Reagan National Airport next to the control tower outside Washington, Monday. The US Department of Transportation says the 'sequester' will force the Federal Aviation Administration to reduce hours at hundreds of control towers and airports and completely close dozens more, creating an air travel nightmare.

In the world of air travel, it sounds like a nightmare scenario.

The federal budget “sequester,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday, would be a “calamity” that would force the Federal Aviation Administration to reduce hours at hundreds of control towers and airports and completely close dozens more, leading to gridlock in the skies and long delays and cancellations in the nation’s airports.

As part of the $85 billion across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester, the Department of Transportation must cut $1 billion from its annual budget, of which about $600 million would be slashed from the FAA, which oversees air travel. According to Secretary LaHood, that translates into furloughs for most of the agency’s 47,000 employees and closures of more than 100 air traffic control towers across the country – a situation LaHood, in a series of appearances over the weekend, said would be “very painful for the flying public.”

“It is going to be chaos for air travelers,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst with advisory firm Hudson Crossing. “Hundreds of control towers are slated to have either hours reduced or eliminated altogether. This is big.” 

And while the projected disruption to air travel is deeply concerning to many, the “sky-is-falling” scenario has some analysts skeptical about the administration’s use of the cutbacks in air transportation as a political football. After all, air travel delays are a popular weapon in the political debate because they impact so many Americans in a particularly irritating fashion.

“There may be some actions being done to create drama where there doesn’t need to be,” says Mr. Harteveldt. “It can be as bad as the FAA and TSA want to make it.”

To what extent, then, is the dismal picture painted by LaHood fear-mongering designed to pressure lawmakers to reach a budget deal? Can the FAA target cuts in other areas to mitigate the impact for travelers, or are LaHood’s hands tied?

Congressional Republicans have accused the administration of using the air traffic control cuts to “create alarm.”

“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,” Sen. John Thune (R) and Reps. Bill Schuster (R) and Frank LoBiondo (R), said in a joint statement Friday.

According to Politico, the group said there were other areas in which the FAA could instead cut “fat,” like the more than $500 million spent each year on consultants, or the $200 million spent on supplies and travel.

LaHood has countered the claims, saying he has no choice but to reduce air-traffic staffing.

“The largest number of employees at DOT is at FAA, of which the largest number are FAA controllers," LaHood said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” "We are going to try and cut as much as we possibly can out of contracts and other things that we do. But in the end, there has to be some kind of furlough of air traffic control.”

Michael Boyd, an aviation analyst with Boyd Group International, an aviation consulting and forecasting firm, says the move is “engineered to be as difficult as possible for the consumer.”

“Ray LaHood and his group will make it as hard as possible. They’re going to want to take this right to the consumer and make the consumer feel as much pain as possible,” says Mr. Boyd. “This is how you make a point.… This is frankly a political program.”

What’s more, says Harteveldt, cuts could be focused on less critical areas to lessen the impact for travelers.

“I’m sure there are options available to them that would be considered discretionary – less important, less strategic areas – that could be examined and cut [without] … affecting frontline service and frontline personnel,” he says.

Among the options cited by Harteveldt and Boyd are reducing spending on private contractors, management, and support staff, as well as temporarily suspending discretionary projects like personnel training and next-generation air traffic control systems.

“There is a concentrated effort to tell everyone how bad it will be,” says Boyd. “It doesn’t have to be.”

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, disagrees. Not only are LaHood’s options limited under the law, he says, “it could be even worse.”

“It’s surprising to a lot of people, but the truth is these budgets don’t work the way you think they do,” says Mr. Lilly, who worked in Congress for more than three decades, including as staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. “There is a lot less latitude than you might suppose.”

The 1985 Gramm-Rudman Act, which originally introduced the concept of automatic spending cuts, as well as the Budget Control Act of 2011, which introduced this sequester, stipulate how government programs must be cut if voluntary spending reductions are not agreed on. The legislation, says Lilly, mandates formulaic across-the-board cuts of approximately 5.3 percent on all non-national security government programs, with some exceptions. That means the FAA must shoulder an equal percentage of the financial burden as other government agencies.

“The problem with programs like the FAA is that they’re almost all salaries,” he adds, explaining that much of the budget is devoted to air traffic controllers’ salaries and control towers that are leased under fixed contracts.

What’s more, the FAA will have spent half of its budget for the fiscal year by March 30, when cuts would likely go into effect, which means the agency would have to enact even steeper cuts to achieve the necessary reductions over a shorter period of time.

As such, says Lilly, LaHood’s hands are effectively tied.

“There’s not a lot of flexibility,” he says. “My view is that this may be even worse for the FAA than what LaHood has described.”

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