A Belated but Heartfelt Diatribe Against Our Government’s Air Traffic Control Delay Debacle

There has been plenty of press about the completely unnecessary delays that hit the US air traffic control system last week thanks to political gamesmanship, but once the legislators hammered out a quick deal, the press coverage subsided. The way this situation was handled was so frustrating that I thought it important to not let this slide into history so easily.


For those expecting a partisan rant blaming one side or the other, you’re not going to get it. The blame lies on both sides of the aisle, both in Congress and in the President’s administration. Quite simply, it’s something that never should have happened, but politics meant it was inevitable. Let’s start with a little background.

The Sequester Gets Its Start
We all know about the sequester by now. A series of automatic spending cuts were put into effect by Congress with the express belief that they would never go into effect. It was thought that such drastic and thoughtless cuts would force Congress to pass something better before they had the chance to create an impact. They were wrong. As always seems to be the case these days, the right and the left couldn’t come to an agreement and the sequester cuts went into effect earlier this year.

These cuts were across the board and impacted every agency, including the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration as part of that. (There’s also an impact on Customs and Border Protection and on TSA that has seen lines increase, but I’m not even touching on that today.)

Making Air Travel the Center of the Debate
Early on in this fight, the President’s administration decided to make air traffic control a posterchild for how bad the sequester would be. It’s hard to really convey the impact of the sequester cuts when some don’t really impact a lot of people, but air travel has a huge impact on a wide swath of America so I can only assume that the administration thought that it could use delays to break the gridlock in Congress.

Before the sequester, the rhetoric ramped up. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood warned of dire consequences if the cuts went into place. Small airport tower closures were announced (and delayed, and eventually canceled) and furloughs were announced for air traffic controllers. That was bound to mean delays and the press jumped on it.

I was extremely skeptical. The law said that “the same percentage sequestration shall apply
to all programs, projects, and activities within a budget account.” So there has been a lot of reporting that the FAA couldn’t do anything unless Congress passed a law. But there are others who disagreed; others who have tremendous credibility.

How about two Solictor Generals, those who represent the federal government in the Supreme Court? Both Seth Waxman (Solicitor General under Clinton) and Paul Clement (Solicitor General under Bush II), both gave opinions that the FAA could have moved funds around to avoid the furloughs that led to delays. This was all just bluster and wouldn’t actually happen, right? That’s how it should have played out.

The Plan Goes Into Effect
As furloughs went into effect in mid-April, air traffic delays quickly grew. LAX was an early victim with arrival delays of up to 2 hours. Charlotte saw delays one day because a controller had to go on jury duty. The New York airports all saw massive delays, though the FAA tried to cloak those as being weather-related when it fact they were not.

Speaking to airline operations people, the delays seem to have been even worse than they could have imagined. Part of it was the extent of the delays, but it was also the inability to predict them. The FAA refused to give much guidance on which airports would see delays and when. It was as if they didn’t want the airlines to know where the problems were so that they could have maximum effect. At least, I can only assume that was the directive from the administration.

This went on for a week, and delays continued to grow…randomly. One day it was Dallas/Ft Worth. The next day, it was Washington/National. The importance of air travel to the US economy is well documented, and this kind of uncertainty was only going to hurt. The anger was rising and it was directed rightfully at everyone in government. Congress had failed to do anything about the sequester in the first place, and the administration hadn’t done what it could have to prevent the pain.

And why was that? Well, the FAA leadership was either stupid and couldn’t figure out how to deal with the budget cuts or there was a directive from above to make it painful as a way to push a resolution through Congress. I’m putting my money on the latter. Regardless of the reason, it was clear that the damage being done wasn’t sustainable. A few days in, and Congress was working on a plan.

A Partial Solution
Unfortunately, the plan was just to solve the air travel issue and not the entire sequestration problem. That’s not a surprise, however. Air travel delays impacted CEOs, lobbyists, and Congresspeople themselves, so they were bound to act in their most selfish interests. The other issues didn’t impact all these people directly so those could apparently wait.

Congress hastily threw together a bill to shift funding from one area to allow air traffic control to operate at full staffing. The bill was put together so hastily that some of it was handwritten. And when it was sent to the President to sign, there was a typo that caused a delay in getting it done.

The threat of air traffic control delays for budgetary reasons has now passed, but I wish the story had a happy ending. While airplanes are flying on time, there is still no relief for all the other less visible programs that have been hurt by the sequester around the country. The impacts are just starting to be felt as the budget noose tightens. It’s still a terrible situation.

[Sloth photo via Shutterstock]

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