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

Government Regulation

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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28 comments on “A Belated but Heartfelt Diatribe Against Our Government’s Air Traffic Control Delay Debacle

  1. It didn’t take long for the rising tide of public anger to get the attention
    of Congress, it ended in about the time frame I figured it would.

  2. These are some pretty wild (but serious) accusations.
    Is there any inside evidence to back them up?
    Sure they can move funds round within an agency, quite legally as is pointed out, but wherever it is moved from is going to be hit. As for not letting the airlines know what is getting cut, maybe, just maybe, they cut the PR people before they cut the operational controllers? Was it a wrong call to have more controllers on duty and less communications types?

    Of course, if there is evidence that the administration DID make things worse than they needed to be, that is quite serious. The point is, that the FAA had to operate for a short time without proper funding, they had to cut deep because they did not know how long the Capitol hill SNAFU was going to go on for. If they had known it would only be of short duration, maybe they could have been less drastic with the cuts. But jeez, hindsight.

    1. There’s only two problems with what you’re saying:

      1) The Congressional resolution authorized the FAA to shift around $253 million that was just sitting around unused in other accounts to pay ATC salaries and keep towers opened. There is nothing else that is getting cut or reduced by moving this money around. I, too find it dubious that the FAA couldn’t move these deck chairs around without Congressional approval.
      2) The FAA never had to “cut deep” because the sequester doesn’t force “cuts” in the real sense. In the Orwellian dystopia that is Washington DC, when spending doesn’t rise as fast as it is projected to, it is scored a “cut” by the CBO, even if that agency ends up spending more in actual dollars than it did in the prior year. Which is what LaHood’s crocodile tears were all about – he didn’t get the funding increases that he was projected to back in 2011 when the sequester was enacted.

      1. I wouldn’t say that the money was sitting in unused accounts. It simply hadn’t been allocated yet. Most if not all of it was sitting in the account that is used for airport improvements. While $253m is a small portion of the $3b+ in the account, there are going to be airport improvements that don’t get funded because of this. They robbed Peter to pay Paul, it wasn’t just some found money that was being hoarded away.

    2. Marks – I’ll address a couple of your points.

      Sure they can move funds round within an agency, quite legally as is pointed out, but wherever it is moved from is going to be hit.

      Yes. But wouldn’t you think that they would be able to shift resources for controllers in, say, Flagstaff, and use that money to pay for people in LA to avoid the 3 hour delays there? Of course other places take a hit, but you find a place that needs more people than New York. It doesn’t exist.

      As for not letting the airlines know what is getting cut, maybe, just maybe, they cut the PR people before they cut the operational controllers? Was it a wrong call to have more controllers on duty and less communications types?

      We’re not talking about PR people. They have coordination calls between the airline ops folks and the FAA every time. It’s a vital part of the process to making operations run smoothly. They continued to have these calls but the information wasn’t provided about what would have problems in advance. That shouldn’t have been hard to do since they’re already on the phone.

      1. Yes. But wouldn?t you think that they would be able to shift resources for controllers in, say, Flagstaff, and use that money to pay for people in LA to avoid the 3 hour delays there? Of course other places take a hit, but you find a place that needs more people than New York. It doesn?t exist.

        If the federal government is anything like my state government, then no, they cannot furlough one area at the expense of another. And that is, from a labor perspective, totally fair. Why should the ATC in Flagstaff suffer worse than the ATC in LAX in his paycheck because the powers that be can’t get their act together? That’s grossly unfair.

        The reason why DOT could furlough and close smaller ATC’s is because those weren’t staffed by federal employees; most of htem were staffed by contracted ATC, whom don’t have the same procedural rights that federal employees have.

  3. It appears that since there wasn’t that much uproar and about closing the small airport towers (many if not most of which should have been closed long ago), the DOT chose to switch to a strategy that would cause great uproar. But the DOT (and the administration) misjudged that the uproar wasn’t to roll back the sequestration but rather to stop using our air traffic system as a pawn in political squabbling.

    1. Maybe you didn’t hear much of an uproar about closing the “small airport towers” if you’re not a pilot, but believe me, this was a huge deal for “small”, as well as commercial airports. There are two local airports (no commercial flights) near me that had towers scheduled to be closed, and their closing would have been disastrous. Each airport on its own has more traffic in a day than many Class C airports (places like Chattanooga, Asheville, etc…). On a nice weekend day, there are sometimes 5-6 planes coming into land and a few on the ground waiting to take off. And these are not all private pilots out for a joyride. There are many flight schools and air taxi services, plus business jets flying in and out. There are some airports that certainly could do without towers, but the proposed list included many that would have hurt aviation in a significant way.

  4. You seem surprised that the Administration might use this lever?

    I think it has long been understood that if you want to goad congress into action on aviation issues you just have to mess with National Airport in Washington.

    The Wednesday and Thursday of a week where the Senate Calendar has a long weekend scheduled would tend to have maximum effect.

  5. How much of the slow down was working controlers who went ‘by the book’ to slow things down to try and cause as much chaos as possible to get workers back on the job?

    1. “Going by the book” is sooo high school. Controllers are fullly adults who are not bent on tit for tat mentality you are suggesting, actually, the controllers were on duty as every day…to move the air traffic safely and jusiciously. There is NO TIME at a facility whether it be a Tower, Approach/Departure Control or Enroute Center to play childish games with passenger and crew’s lives. Get a new source of your information…this one you supplied stinks..

    2. David – How could the controllers have slowed this down? They didn’t pick who got furloughed and when. I have heard that they weren’t interested in picking up overtime because they weren’t going to actually be paid overtime because of the way the furlough cut hours. I don’t blame them if that’s the case.

      1. There are lots of little things controllers can do to slow things down. Many clearances are given on the expectation of where things are going to be. All they have to do is be a little bit more conservative in their expectations, and the ripple effect will work through the system.

        For example, two planes converging from opposite directions that need to be 5 miles in trail for the approach. Real world, they vector them to have the second plane turn so it ends up 5mi in trail, and give it a speed restriction if needed. By the book, they turn the second plane outbound for a few miles to make sure it ends up 5mi in trail.

        1. Welllll John C…I don’t know what ATC facility YOU worked at, but in the 3 that I was at over a period of 30 years….never entered any controllers mind.
          The aircraft were handled as they called for a request. Jeeeez !

    3. Work to rule is legitimite tactic in labor negotiations, and often the only resource for a employee group that is being saddled with a workload above and beyond what they can handle. If ATC worked to rule, I applaud them, especially in lgiht of the furloughs, for looking OUT for pax and airplane safety by not burdening themselves with a workload above what they were able to deliver while short staffed.

  6. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, this could have been avoided if Congress and the President would have simply acted like adults. I really feel that both sides care more about their narrow partisan interests than they do about what’s best for the country. In other words, politics has trumped governance. That’s bad news for all of us.

    1. This statement is nonsensical. What exactly are they supposed to write in the legislation if they ignore their “partisan interests”? Legislation, by its design, has to be partisan and specific. You can’t just write a piece of paper that says “common sense” and call it a day. You have to write up funding mechanisms, budgets, programs, plans, etc. The details and arc of those things can be wildly different depending on one’s political perspective, and cannot merely be subsitituted with feel good pap. What you think is “good for the country” may be the worst idea in the world to me, but yet I’m supposed to support it why?

      As someone who donates to candidates and votes for specific interests and causes, you’re damn right I want my “narrow interests” represented. That’s the point of a democracy! Just like someone on the opposing side donates and votes for what they want. The paralysis at play currently is mostly the result of a country that is, atleast in the system we have, represented evenly. Nature of the beast.

    2. Sean S.,

      Our whole political system is based on compromise. the U.S. Constitution is full of compromise. Rarely does anyone govern from the fringes in a republic. Most public policy comes from the middle. I want my narrow interests reprented, too, but only reprsented. I don’t have the right to forcibly impose my will on someone who disagrees with me – and neither does the government. We have majority rule but majority rule with minority rights.

      1. Again these statements are boilerplate that mean nothing. Legislation is called making sausage for a reason; its a process of grinding out langauge and specifics that actually mean something. Anyone whose every sat on a school board or any committee knows how difficult it is to actually come up with langauge and specifics that satisfy everyone. Clearly both sides, which are re-elected repeatedly by the people who are pulling the levers, represent the interests of their constiutients. The difficulty is there is an increasing difference amongst voters themselves about what direction to head in, so it’s no surprise that the people who represent them are also equally divided. If political representatives make compromises that infuriate the people who elected them, the people who elected them have every righ tot vote them out. And that is exactly why representatives aren’t compromising. because the people who are electing them don’t want them too.

    1. We really have to stop re-electing these clowns. No one said anything about the impact on air travel? Really? REALLY?

      No wonder they can’t come to an agreement. They don’t think anything is wrong.

  7. Most people, including the Tea Party folks, don’t fly except perhaps on an annual vacation or to a family funeral. Those who oppose “big government” probably aren’t aware of the federal role in supporting our health (CDC, FDA, NIH) or even holding down the cost of bread by moving barges down the Mississippi River (Army Corps of Engineers). The sequester is an abstract notion, so they don’t rise up against the current stalemate–except when personally impacted.

  8. What annoys me the most about this is that air travel was used as a political football, but the game wasn’t played all the way through.

    For the sake of argument I’ll accept that the administration orchestrated the air traffic control delay debacle. If they did, they should’ve used it all the way. Obama should have vetoed the bill to just fix the air traffic control issues and insisted that congress do something to fix all of the sequester debacle.

    If you’re going to make something a political football at least use it fully.

  9. Please stop equivicating. Both sides are not to blame- that’s squarely on Obama and his regime. He thought up the ‘sequestrian’ idea (remember the debates with Romney?) and refused to sign the bill proposed to him a while ago that would have given him everything he wanted. Obama wanted this to happen, to blame the Republican House, to take it over in 2014. How can such cuts in increased spending (not real cuts) so quickly affect our government which spends billions each day? It can’t.

  10. If I have to put up with some temporary delays to keep my taxes from skyrocketing to France levels, so be it. The airlines should adjust by flying larger planes less frequently. Nobody needs ten flights a day of 20-seat airplanes from Hoboken to Chattanooga.

  11. Great article Brett, can you use this for a CN post or CNN? This type of local viewpoint, supported by facts, is all too infrequent in this debate.

    As to whether agencies were told (or knew) to make sequestration cuts as visible as possible, that seems fairly obvious. Parks in DC owned by the federal government removed hundreds of trash cans under the specious assertion that they could no longer fund the waste removal. Other cuts are happening specifically to the national mall.

    Heaven forbid that the federal government has to, just once, trim its budget modestly and make some tough decisions in the way that most American businesses and citizens do every day!

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