Another day, another government “crisis” because our Congressional leaders can’t find a way to do what’s right. I’m not looking to point fingers in this post, because it doesn’t do any good. (I have no doubt you will all do that in the comments anyway.) I simply care about sifting through what’s actually going to happen and what is just political posturing. Sequestration goes into effect on March 1 unless a compromise can be reached, and once again, doom and gloom is predicted. This time, the face of that disaster is crazy flight delays because the government can’t staff the air traffic control system. I don’t believe it one bit. (But I should be clear that sequestration is a terrible idea.)
First of all, I assume that they’ll come up with yet another deal that kicks the can down the road, preventing the major budget cuts that come with sequestration but failing to put together a long term solution. That’s been par for the course. But what if they don’t come up with a solution? Then what happens?
Well, when sequestration goes into effect, major budget cuts hit across the government. Before, the big talk was about how it would cripple our national defense because budgets would be cut so much. But now there’s a new face of doom, and it’s that our air traffic control system is going to be paralyzed. Oy vey.
The big push on this has come from soon-to-be-retired Secretary of Transporation Ray LaHood. (Oh man, I can’t wait until he’s retired.) If sequestration goes into effect, there will be cuts of about $600 million at the FAA. Part of that will come from cutting contracts and moving funds around as best as possible, but according to LaHood, it’s not enough.
In the end, there has to be some kind of furlough of air traffic controllers, that then will also begin to curtail or eliminate the opportunity for them to guide planes in and out of airports.
Oh no, the sky is falling! The sky is falling! What are we going to do?! We’re going to keep operating the national airspace system, that’s what.
Clearly the goal here has to be to shift resources around as much as possible in order to make sure that the impact on day to day operations is minimized as much as possible. Will furloughs be needed? Probably. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to go slash staff at enroute air traffic control centers or in towers at major airports. Instead, you should see the impacts around the edges.
For example, the FAA has put out a list of what it might do, and it includes about 100 airports that could face air traffic control tower closure. Recognize any of these airports? If you’re a private pilot, you probably do, but very few of these have commercial service. The ones that do have commercial service see very few operations – Santa Rosa (CA), Trenton (NJ), and Latrobe (PA) face closure. We could also see cuts in Sioux City (IA) and some other airports with a few regional flights a day. Those have just a handful of flights per day at most, but let’s be clear. Just because the tower closes doesn’t mean the airport closes. Those flights can actually still run without a tower if the airline chooses to. Keep in mind, these are all just potential closures anyway.
If this happens, I simply cannot see the air traffic control system becoming paralyzed as many seem to have predicted. For commercial flights, it will run as normal in the short term, or at least it should run as normal unless the FAA does something stupid. I say that for the short term only, because longer term they’re doing things like putting off preventive maintenance on ancient systems that could result in more pain and suffering down the line. But hopefully at worst, this is a short term issue.
Please don’t take this as an argument in favor of sequestration. It’s a terrible way to cut a budget, and it will be bad in the long run. We will have to expect further delays in getting the NextGen air traffic control system going (on top of the insane number of delays we’ve already seen). It will also mean FAA employees (and employees of all government agencies) will take a big hit, and yes, it will have on impact on our aviation system. It’s just not going to be the immediate doom-and-gloom that others predict. Still, it would have grave consequences over time. And that’s true for our entire country, not just for air travelers.