FAA Furloughs: Is Air Traffic Chaos a Political Move?
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The Fiscal Times
April 23, 2013

As hundreds of flights around the country are delayed because of furloughs to air traffic controllers, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned yesterday that the situation was likely to get worse.

“We did not take into account weather activities,” he told ABC News. “These delays could get extended beyond the 60 to 90 minutes.”

The mess at airports is a result of how LaHood has implemented sequestration, which automatically cuts the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget. The White House has but the blame on Republicans, while Republicans have tried to deflect blame back onto President Obama.

What both sides are not revealing is that furloughs might be completely unnecessary.

In alawsuit filed against the FAA by Airlines for America, the Regional Airline Association, and the Air Lines Pilot Administration International, the plaintiffs argue that furloughs were avoided during a similar sequestration in 1986.

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“It is notable that the FAA has previously handled similar sequestration cuts without resorting to extreme controller furloughs like the ones it has now ordered to achieve a 5 percent spending reduction,” the lawsuit states. “In 1986, Congress imposed a sequestration…That sequestration required a budget cut of 4.3 [percent], which was accomplished without freezing hires of air traffic controllers, much less furloughs.”

The plaintiff’s added: “The FAA and DOT have provided little insight into why the FAA's resources, even after making cuts required by sequestration, cannot still adequately support air traffic control operations at major airports.”

Calls to the FAA were not returned.

Other Federal agencies facing similar 5 percent cuts have been able to meet the obligations of the sequester without furloughing anyone.  Those agencies--including Health & Human Services, the State Department, and the General Accounting Office--also have high full-time head counts, but they’ve cut expenses instead.


An editorial in Monday’s Wall Street Journal noted, “Capitol Hill Republicans say the White House is free to make other cuts instead. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster suggests the FAA first take a whack at the $500 million it's spending on consultants, or perhaps the $325 million it blows on supplies and travel.” 

Victoria Day, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, said the FAA’s decision to furlough workers was putting the public at risk.

“We believe these furloughs are illegal, irresponsible and damaging, but most of all unnecessary. We are taking every possible action to avoid any impact to the traveling public,” she said. Day added that passengers were being used as political puppets.

“We believe our passengers, shippers, employees and the communities we serve deserve better than to be treated as a political football,” Day said.

In Washington, that football game continued. Yesterday, Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), tweeted: “No one likes sequestration, but FAA is ignoring authority it has and making it as painful as possible for air travelers #obamaflightdelays.” House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) added, "The Administration has made choices that appear designed to have the greatest possible impact on the traveling public."

Meanwhile, the White House continued to maintain the blame lies with Republicans.

“This is a result of sequester that is never meant to be law,” Obama spokesperson Jay Carney said. “These furloughs, that’s the unfortunate fact of arbitrary, across-the-board cuts like this.”

Additional reporting by Brianna Ehley

An editor-at-large for The Fiscal Times, David Francis has reported from all over the world on issues that range from defense to border security to transatlantic relations.