Sequestration Means FAA Cuts, But I Simply Don’t Believe the Disaster Scenarios

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. Johnny from AirplaneBut 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.


40 Responses to Sequestration Means FAA Cuts, But I Simply Don’t Believe the Disaster Scenarios

  1. JRS says:

    I’m more concerned with cuts involving TSA, would even small cuts mean
    big backups getting through security? I doubt anyone knows for sure, I imagine
    at major airports like JFK it could get hellish. One prediction is to allow at least
    one extra hour in arriving at the airport, depending on the airport that may or may not be enough. Hopefully a compromise will be reached so we don’t have to find
    out for sure.

    • CF says:

      JRS – I actually would be surprised if we saw huge delays through security or customs/immigration right away. This requires administrators to get creative and find ways to work with less. If they have no choice, they’ll find a way to do it.

  2. Jorg says:

    Honestly, I wonder why they don’t close those airports’ ATC anyway? It’s nice to fly under control, but if there’s no ‘big’ traffic, why pay someone? I’m a PPL student (though I haven’t had any class in 2 years…) and my airport (EHHV, The Netherlands) only has advisory. Even though it’s about 25nm away from Schiphol Amsterdam Airport and especially during the weekends there’s some traffic, it all goes fine.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love how they deal with flying on your side of the pond. It’s amazingly cheap (to give you an idea: I pay about 11 dollars to land and that’s only because I’m local) and restrictions are very limited. However, keeping these airports’ ATC open, don’t think it adds a lot. What’s wrong with advisory?

    • Mke says:

      if there is only GA traffic, i agree.

      but many also have scheduled passenger service.
      and those airports have ATC for a reason.

      does it work without it? yes.
      is it the safe and prudent thing to shut down? no

      • Is there a way to run from remote towers? I recall hearing at some point about PBI / FLL running ops out of MIA for certain overnight conditions. It’s not the same, but these airports probably dont handle high enough volume to warrant such a need. If so, could airport usage fees be upped $1 per pax to compensate a controller during peak times?

        • Jorg says:

          I don’t know about the rules in the US (nor in Europe, for what’s it worth ;) ), but I’ve been to the Island Gran Roque in Venezuela, part of the archipel Los Roques (you might have heard from the crash in 2008 with the Italians involved: that happened there). The airport (LRV, SVRS) is controlled remotely from Caracas (CCS, SVMI) Airport, about 90 miles away. They have reasonable traffic, both GA and scheduled. When I was there, they were handling three scheduled flights at the same time.

  3. Roger says:

    Have the airlines published anything, since this affects them the most? Presumably being proactive is hard since no one knows what will actually happen (as opposed to could happen).

    • CF says:

      Roger – I haven’t seen anything from the airlines on this. They’ve been pretty quiet and are just letting politics play out. I haven’t seen anything from A4A (airline lobbying organization) either.

  4. S. Brown says:

    This post only deals with ATC. TSA and CBP also will face cuts.

  5. GREAT use of Airplane’s Jonny! There’s a sale at Penney’s!!!!!!

    • SEAN says:

      We have clearence Clarence. Roger Roger, what’s are vector Victor?

      Do you like movies about gladiators?

      Remember your brakes & switches!

      Nurvis? Yes. First time. No I’ve been nurvis lots of times.

  6. Come on Man says:

    After sequestration the FAA budget will be $500 million more than in 2008.

    Passengers in 2008: 809m

    Passengers Dec 2011 through Nov 2012: 812m

    LaHood is full of sh!t.

    • NextGen is costing a lot of money though, and not sure how other capital projects, long term maintenance, etc. is doing. Sure the budget is bigger and pax haven’t increased much, but that doesn’t mean costs and commitments haven’t risen as well. We can’t necessarily go back to a 2008 FAA with one swoop of a pen.

      • NextGen has been costing a lot of money for 2 decades and hasn’t delivered a damn thing.

        Show me an FAA capital project with actual, tangible results and I’ll buy that maybe the budget should be increased.

    • Scott says:

      This analysis assumes that FAA’s costs are relative to the number of passengers flying and nothing else. The reality is that’s far from the case. Operating costs — not the least of which is labor — have increased steadily since 2008, and the required labor isn’t tied to passenger totals.

      • Come on Man says:

        But the number of passengers is generally tied to the number of flights airlines fly. Are there significantly more airplanes in the sky in 2013 than 2008?

        500m since 2008 is plenty to pay labor.

    • CF says:

      As others have said, just because there were more flights with less budget back in 2008 doesn’t mean it’s easy to just go back to that. Nor does it mean that they should go back.

  7. Our elected officials do like to say (stupid) things that grab media attention and the media in turn wants to grab our attention with those big screaming doomsday headlines.

    A lot of small/rural airports don’t have humans sitting in a control tower at that airport. The giant state of Alaska is a good example of that. Someone in ANC or FAI is guiding planes around the skies and it’s up to the pilot to make sure no other plane (or moose) is on the runway when it’s time to land.

    The movement of people and goods by air will not stop because it can’t since that is how the 21st century works. That is just to many people (a.k.a. voters) who would not be happy with their elected official and would make sure they our not their elected officail when the next election comes along.

  8. MeanMeosh says:

    “It’s a twister!! It’s a twister!!”

    I’m suspecting most of what you’re hearing from both LaHood and Napolitano, on both ATC delays and TSA/CBP delays, is little more than political posturing. After all, they work for the Obama administration, so they’re going to toe the administration’s line to try and get public opinion on their side and force Republicans to accept tax increases. I have no doubt we’d be seeing the same thing if the shoe was on the other foot, with a Republican president trying to force a Democratic Congress to accept spending cuts. Such is life in Washington.

    I personally find the sequester preferable to yet another short term fix that isn’t a fix and just kicks the can down the road, for the next Congress not to deal with. Even if it goes through, IMHO, you won’t see it in force for more than a few months at most, before one side or the other cries “UNCLE!” and we get, most likely, yet another bogus short-term “fix”. In other words, not long enough for any serious damage to be done.

  9. To me, the biggest problem in our politics is a lack of courage. the “sequestration” (whose cuts are purposely draconian and foolish) was enacted to prod Congress into doing its job; which is to make tough, intelligent decisions and take recorded votes on those decisions. Both sides won something in the last election. We have divided government (at least on the federal level where most aviation policy is made). Both sides need to quit blaming each other and look in the mirror.

  10. Shane says:

    The bigger issue is long term. The reason most American’s won’t feel this is because the burden will be on the backs of the federal employees. They will be asked to take effective 20% pay cuts with 1 day / week furloughs and then take on 20% additional workload to make up the difference. Especially in higher stress positions, is it a good idea to increase workload that much? And what does it do to moral and long term recruiting if this is used as a backdoor way to cut federal salaries by 20%, short or long term?

  11. Eric says:

    I asked an acquaintance who works in admin with TSA how this will mess things up. She said that their staffing (at my airport) relies heavily on OT. Example: administrators are pressured to do the work of 15 people with 10 on payroll; the cost of OT being less than 5 more people on payroll with benefits. The seq will cut, or eliminate, OT reserve monies so 10 people will be 10 people.

    And I’m totally with you Brett…this has to be the stupidest of the stupid options in deficit reductions. I don’t understand how our ‘best and brightest’ can not look over the pond at the U.K. and see how well their premature sequestration has worked out.

    • Scott says:

      Eric — keep in mind that everyone, including Congress, knew this sequester was a bad idea. No one (sane, anyway) voted for the sequester thinking it was actually good policy. In fact, that was the whole point… to hang something so awful over Congress’s own head that even the most stubborn among them would rather compromise than face the sequester. Unfortunately, they appear to have underestimated their own stubbornness.

    • It is too bad the sequester didn’t cut the TSA altogether.

  12. MeanMeosh says:

    “And I?m totally with you Brett?this has to be the stupidest of the stupid options in deficit reductions. I don?t understand how our ?best and brightest? can not look over the pond at the U.K. and see how well their premature sequestration has worked out.”

    Because working this out would actually require Congress and the President to make tough choices they don’t want to make. Democrats aren’t serious about cutting spending. Revenue is a four letter word to Republicans. Regardless of whether you think the solution is higher taxes or more spending, or a combination of both, fixing the problem requires both parties to accept something that’s unpalatable to their base. Instead, they’d rather get on TV and take cheap shots and predict the coming apocalypse to score political points.

    • MeanMeosh says:

      Sorry, meant for this to be a reply to Eric, and not an entirely new posting – the dangers of multi-tasking :(

  13. Frank says:

    Until recent years, the vast majority of these airports operated without control towers at all. They will be fine without them again. We simply can’t continue to borrow forty cents of every dollar we spend, and if fixing that problem means less-trafficked airports do without controllers, so be it. In fact, these big bad sequester cuts amount to all of 2.4% of the budget, and as such, don’t go nearly far enough.

  14. Scott says:

    As others have already commented (but bears repeating)… the short-term impact on travelers of the FAA spending cuts are really secondary to the cuts at TSA/CBP. Travelers WILL face longer lines by April if the sequester happens (and remains in effect long-enough)… but it won’t be from the FAA cuts. The FAA cuts certainly could harm the public, but in a much more indirect and long-term way that would take a post longer than Cranky’s to explain.

  15. Joseph says:

    If you look at the FAA’s very own plan “A Plan for the Future” 2012-2021 A 10 Year Startegy for the ATC Workforce it states that peak traffic was in 2000 and since that time operations have declined 23% however the number of controllers is higher than in 2000 by a couple hundred (Total 15,418 controller 2012). If operations decline 23% would it not seem managable that some decrease in personnel could occur without ANY decline in service?

  16. Shindig says:

    In July, 2011, the White House budget director suggested to Harry Reid, according to Bob Woodward’s book “The Price of Politics”, that they had an idea to force a budget deal. Yup, sequestration. Reid said it was insane and that the White House would surely come up with a plan that will save the day. Right!

    However, this president identifies a problem but then declines to propose anything to solve the problem. Then he states a vague, politically convenient idea that doesn’t really offer a solution. (e.g. tax the rich more). Next, he scoffs at the opposition for not having as politically popular an idea. Finally, he returns to D.C. and congratulates himself for being the only serious, substantive person around.

    That’s the gist of what David Brooks of the N.Y. Times wrote and I think he’s spot on.

  17. Bill Hough says:

    I agree with Michael Boyd’s analysis here:

    http://www.aviationplanning.com/HotFlash.htm

    Bottom line, he writes, is:
    “This is not about politics any longer. It’s about cheap, naked ethical corruption that defines Washington in general and this Administration in particular. Truth doesn’t matter. Facts don’t count. Cutting the deficit is important, but it does not require using the national economy as a political pawn. Changing fiscal habits means no more government as usual – which is just the opposite of what “sequestration’ Is all about. Anybody who believes it will fundamentally change the morally-corrupt system inside the Beltway has been asleep for the past 20 years.”

    “Sorry if that statement hits some people wrong. Tough. It is a serious matter, and the truth sometimes does not set well with some folks. But turning a blind eye to the truth is the same as lying.”

    “The choice is not ambiguous: it is time to call LaHood and his ilk on their dishonesty. Or, be quiet, like good little sheep.”

    “And continue to get sheared.”

    Read the whole thing.

    • Scott says:

      I’ve always been skeptical of Boyd’s analysis of aviation… but this rant on Washington rises to a whole new level. His ignorance about this situation is readily apparent — clearly, he understands that sequestration is a huge mess… but his analysis indicates he doesn’t know much about the mess itself. I had no previous knowledge of Boyd’s political leanings, but this rant is about as blindly pro-conservative as any I’ve seen yet!

    • Scott says:

      (oops, my comment below was supposed to be a reply to Bill’s post here… my bad!)

      • “Analysts” (aka paid mouthpieces for airlines) like Boyd are why lots of us read sites like this in the first place. I had so little regard for his airline business opinions that I couldn’t believe it was even possible to have less regard for his political editorial but, yep, it was possible!

  18. Scott says:

    I’ve always been skeptical of Boyd’s analysis when it comes to aviation… despite the brand he’s built for himself. That said, this rant on Washington rises to a whole new level of ridiculous. Boyd may clearly understand that sequestration is a mess — but it’s apparent from this post that he knows very little about that mess. I had no previous knowledge of Boyd’s political leanings, but this kind of overly-partisan, shallow rant is part of the exact problem he’s ranting against. Unfortunately, you can add this post to many, many like it that are just part of the noise in our political system today.

  19. I talked with the Legislative Director for a Republican congressman last night. He believes the sequestration will happen, a couple weeks of blame and posturing will occur and it will be “fixed” in about a month. Hysterical opinions aside, there is nothing “nuclear” about the forthcoming date in that a subsequent bill can be retroactively backdated to “fix” most of the things “lost” in the sequestration period.

  20. cahdot says:

    it’s amazing how little (44Bil) it takes to employ 800,000 government workers it is still not stopping the government from hiring more IRS workers etc??? and our prez wants or demands this sequestration…his idea

  21. John M says:

    Here’s an idea; let’s scrap the entire air traffic control system and admit that it’s the PILOTS who ensure aircraft safety, not soem dweeb on the ground.

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