Across-the-board federal budget cuts scheduled to begin on March 1 will limit the flight-handling capability of the U.S. National Airspace System and could lead to permanent airport and ATC facility closures, warned the head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca).
In a speech to the Aero Club of Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Natca president Paul Rinaldi asserted that mandated budget cuts from “sequestration” will definitely affect air carriers, pilots and the traveling public. Unless Congress acts somehow to stop the process, sequestration “will reduce the capacity of the National Airspace System,” Rinaldi said. “It will negatively impact the flying public, military operations and the U.S. economy in many ways.”
Sequestration will require the Federal Aviation Administration to cut $483 million from its operations budget and $127 million from its facilities and equipment account in the seven months remaining in the federal fiscal year, which ends September 30. “There simply is just not that much fat in the FAA’s operations budget to cut,” Rinaldi said. “Slicing the operations budget by the mandated 5.1 percent during the compressed time period of March through the end of September means cuts will have to be implemented in areas where short-term savings can be found.”
On February 22, the FAA announced that it will close 100 ATC towers at smaller airports, eliminate midnight shifts at 60 towers across the country and furlough, or impose temporary unpaid leave, on most of its 47,000 employees. Controllers, safety inspectors and other employees face furloughs of between 11 and 22 days each. Furloughing the 12,700 fully certified controllers for 10 percent or more of their working hours will “strain” the system and lead to flight delays, Rinaldi said. “Safety will not be compromised, but capacity will be reduced,” he said. The FAA is required to provide employees with 30-day furlough notices, which would put off the first effects of reduced air traffic capacity to early April.
Rinaldi warned that the threatened budget cuts, once implemented, could become fixed in place. “I believe as I go through this exercise, this will be a permanent action, a permanent closure [of facilities] in the National Airspace System,” he said. “These functions could be lost forever.”