Sequester’s Impact on U.S. Airports Could Be Significant

 - March 4, 2013, 1:50 PM
Louis Miller, aviation general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said reduced ATC staffing could lead to the closure of one of the airport’s five runways. (Photo: Atlanta International Airport)

The effects of the U.S. government budget cuts that started on March 1 will not likely be felt until April but they could be significant for airlines and their passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency will absorb the mandated spending cuts known as the “sequester” in part by furloughing employees, or requiring them to take several days of unpaid leave. Following 30-day notification, air traffic controllers, security screeners and customs officers will be working fewer overall hours; the result will be flight delays and longer lines at airport checkpoints, aviation officials advise.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca), the union that represents the FAA’s controller workforce, has estimated the effects of “sequestration” at each of 16 major U.S. airports. The group contends that reduced staffing levels at the terminal radar approach control facility and in the airport tower serving Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport in terms of overall passenger traffic, will mean that controllers cannot safely manage simultaneous triple arrivals (“trips”) and dual departures on the five available runways. If controllers abandon the trips arrival configuration, there will be 25 to 30 fewer aircraft landing per hour, Natca said.

Louis Miller, aviation general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, does not dispute Natca’s assessment of the sequester’s impact. “The worst-case scenario we see, it’s true, [is that] we could possibly shut down a runway. That, in our mind, is the worst-case scenario, and the FAA has confirmed that to us,” Miller told AIN. There are some mitigating factors. Traffic has not increased dramatically since the airport opened its fifth runway in 2006, and the number of overall operations has decreased somewhat because airlines are using larger airplanes, he said. But reducing the operational capacity of an airport with 2,300 daily arrivals and departures will have consequences; for example, airlines with connecting flights through Atlanta may have their aircraft held at the origin airports or in the air until runway slots open. The airport is discussing with the FAA the possibility of keeping all runways operating at least during peak hours.

The TSA has indicated that it will furlough its transportation security officers for eight hours each per two-week pay period, or 10 percent of their working hours, Miller said. The reduction in overall staffing hours could lead to longer lines at the airport’s four security checkpoints. “Our biggest concern there is that we could see our wait times at the security checkpoints go up by 15 or 20 minutes during peak hours, and that’s significant. Right now we have very low average wait times,” he said. The airport plans to use its own customer care representatives to help manage people flowing into the checkpoints. Similarly, reduced staffing hours by CBP could lead to longer lines at the airport’s two customs clearance points, Miller said.

 

 

Comments

Michael's picture

Really?? Why do we continue to hear these untruths? The way it is reported, this will cut the current bottom line?? It does not and to say anything different is wrong. It cuts or should I say, curbs future spending...period! Its cutting less than 3% from the future spending estimate and yet 2013 spending will still be greater than 2012! We are talking less than 3% curb on spending! American families have been forced to cut spending with gas prices rising and medical insurance climbing...by more than 7%!! Are you seriously telling me this curb on future spending, far less than the curb on families...will create the doom and gloom you and the president are predicting? You all should be ashamed.....

Chad Trautvetter's picture

The 3% figure that you note is an average of the cuts in relation to the overall budget. Unfortunately, the sequestor is not quite that simple. The real truth is that it’s not just a 3% cut to the FAA budget. Though the FAA accounts for only 20% of the DOT budget, the FAA will bear 60% of the cuts at the DOT. Further, the Airport Improvment Program is exempt from the sequestor, so these cuts are amplified elsewhere at the FAA. And, since Congress dragged their feet and delayed sequestration by six months, then these cuts will have to be done in six months instead of 12, which makes them more severe. So please don’t tell us we should be ashamed when you post an uninformed comment.

Michael's picture

The FAA budget goes up year-after-year... even under the sequester, air traffic control is handling 27% fewer departures than it did prior to 9/11 with a budget that’s 41% higher. (I do believe the proposed 2013 FAA budget is $15.2 billion) And that’s aside from actually being able to make some cuts without noticeable service effects, even before having to put off capital investment in future air traffic control improvements. I still say and stand by the fact scare tactics are shamefull....

Michael's picture

Phil Gramm's words:

President Obama's message could not be clearer: Life as we know it in America will change dramatically on March 1, when automatic cuts are imposed to achieve $85 billion in government-spending reductions. Furloughed government employees, flight delays and criminals set free are among the dire consequences the president has predicted. If the Washington Monument weren't already closed for repairs, no doubt it too would be shut down.

Scare tactics such as these are similar to the ones that were made when I co-authored the first sequester legislation in 1985, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act. The 1986 sequester was triggered anyway, but the predicted disaster never came. The nation survived then. It will now.
The president's response to the sequester demonstrates how out of touch he is with the real world of working families. Even after the sequester, the federal government will spend $15 billion more than it did last year, and 30% more than it spent in 2007. Government spending on nondefense discretionary programs will be 19.2% higher and spending on defense will be 13.8% higher than it was in 2007.
For a typical American family that earns less than it did in the year President Obama was elected, the anguished cries and dark predictions coming out of the White House should elicit not sympathy but revulsion.
When the 1985 sequester was created, the formula for cuts was closely examined, debated, amended and agreed to by a Democratic House and a Republican Senate and White House. Today's sequester is denounced because of the allegedly arbitrary nature of its across-the-board cuts. Yet the sequester formula that goes into effect on Friday preserves the spending priorities legislated by the Congress and the president, including exemptions and limitations they favored when the Budget Control Act of 2011 became law. The president himself first proposed the sequester. He may not like the way it works, but he has offered no real alternative.

Congress and the president might have worked together to avoid this outcome. Congress could have passed a budget resolution. The Republican House has repeatedly passed budgets, but the Democratic Senate hasn't passed one in four years. Past sequesters allowed for fast-track consideration of alternatives or modifications to the cuts—but the 2013 version doesn't allow for those.

Even if the sequester goes into effect, the magnitude of the automatic cuts won't be very different from those imposed in 1986. Nor is the job of finding alternative spending reductions any harder than it was when alternative cuts were enacted in 1987.

The first Gramm-Rudman sequester took effect on March 1, 1986. It cut nondefense spending by 4.3% and defense spending by 4.9%.

The most recent estimate by the Congressional Budget Office for this year's sequester is that nondefense spending will be cut by 4.6% and defense spending will be cut by 7.9%. While the sequester will reduce spending authority by $85 billion, the actual cuts that will occur in 2013 will be $44 billion. That is a mere 1.2% of total federal spending this year.

The first round of cuts under Gramm-Rudman weren't so devastating that Congress and the president rushed to repeal them. In July 1986, Congress had the opportunity simply to stop the sequester after the Supreme Court invalidated its triggering mechanism. Instead it voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm the across-the-board cuts. The vote in the Democratic House was 339 to 72, and the Republican Senate approved it by acclamation, not deeming it worthy of a roll-call vote.

In 1987, Congress fixed the triggering mechanism and restored the sequester in Gramm-Rudman II. That deal would have cut nondefense discretionary spending by 8.5% and defense spending by 10.5%, far greater cuts than will be triggered this year. Yet a Democratic Congress and a Republican White House came together to replace that sequester with spending cuts in fiscal years 1988 and 1989 that were larger than those called for by Gramm-Rudman II.

While history shows that a divided government can enact significant spending cuts as an alternative to sequesters, that doesn't appear to be the path Mr. Obama intends to follow. Instead of protecting civilian defense workers, the president will continue to force the Pentagon to buy biofuels at $27 per gallon to promote his green agenda. Instead of protecting children from cuts in nutrition programs, the president will continue to allow $2.7 billion of fraud and mismanagement he has identified in the food-stamp program. Instead of protecting Medicare from a 2% cut, the president will ignore $62 billion in annual waste that his administration has identified in Medicare and Medicaid.

But governing is not about blaming someone else—it is about choosing.

While Mr. Obama may choose to make the cuts ordered by the sequester in the most painful way possible, the best alternative—which is practiced every year to some extent—is allowing federal agencies to transfer funds among individual programs with congressional approval or by rearranging priorities as part of the March 27 resolution to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year.

That doesn't sound like a herculean task to Americans who make hard choices every day. Their choices have become harder and more frequent because the country's political leaders seem unwilling to do the same in Washington.

— Mr. Gramm, a former Republican senator from Texas, is a senior partner of US Policy Metrics.

A version of this article appeared February 27, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama and the Sequester Scare.

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