U.S. Transportation, Security Officials Warn of ‘Sequestration’ Impact

 - February 25, 2013, 1:58 PM
Automatic U.S. government budget cuts will force the FAA to furlough air traffic controllers, reducing the overall availability of flights and worsening delays, the agency warns. (Photo: Raytheon)

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration have released details of the cuts they will make if mandated budget reductions from “sequestration” take effect March 1. The likelihood of Congress acting to prevent sequestration appeared to be dimming last week.

In a surprise appearance at the White House on February 22, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said his department would cut $1 billion from its budget, including more than $600 million from the FAA, in the seven months remaining in the federal fiscal year. The FAA would furlough, or impose temporary unpaid leave, on most of its 47,000 employees for one or two days per two-week pay period. The agency would close 100 ATC towers at airports with fewer than 10,000 commercial operations per year and eliminate midnight shifts at 60 towers nationwide. With fewer controllers on duty, flights to major cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco could be delayed up to 90 minutes. “Look, this is a big deal,” LaHood told reporters. “It’s a big deal because a lot of people–common, ordinary citizens–fly. A lot of people use airports, and this is going to have a real impact.”

Separately, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Janet Napolitano, in testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee on February 14, described the effect of sequestration on DHS constituent agencies including the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Sequestration would require the TSA to furlough its 50,000 security officers for up to seven days, she said. Fewer TSA screeners “would substantially increase airline passenger wait times by as much as an hour at the nation’s largest and busiest airports.” In the last fiscal year, CBP processed 98 million international air travelers; cutting the agency’s funding and staffing “will increase wait times at airports,” Napolitano said in written testimony.

Republican lawmakers criticized the Obama administration over the dire warnings by its cabinet secretaries. “We are disappointed by the Administration creating alarm about sequestration’s impact on aviation,” read a joint statement from House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), Aviation Subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Senate Transportation Committee ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.). “Before jumping to the conclusion that furloughs must be implemented, the Administration and [the FAA] need to sharpen their pencils and consider all the options. Prematurely outlining the potential impacts before identifying other savings is not helpful.”

On February 21, the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) added its voice to the chorus of aviation industry groups and government officials warning about the negative consequences of sequestration. ALPA president Lee Moak said the FAA’s action to furlough controllers will reduce the overall availability of flights, worsen delays and drive up airline ticket prices. “I urge Congress to move swiftly to avoid the damage of sequestration,” Moak said. ALPA first vice president Sean Cassidy said working groups involved in the NextGen ATC modernization effort “are going to be sidelined” by sequestration. “It will set NextGen back,” he warned.