Saving Air Travel from the Sequester

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By Robert W. Poole Jr.

After all the hype about shutting down control towers and furloughing air traffic controllers, airlines and airports have good cause to be concerned about what air travel will be like starting April 1st, when those cuts are supposed to take effect. But instead of joining with every other affected group in pleading for an exemption to the sequester, I think the aviation community should speak up for a more responsible approach to dealing with 5% budget cuts.

Yes—it’s just five percent of the budget that must be cut from all FAA accounts except AIP grants (exempted due to dedicated funding from the Aviation Trust Fund). But what exactly does the 5% apply to? Current federal law (dating back to the Gramm-Rudman sequesters of the 1980s) calls for any “across-the-board cuts” to be applied at the level of “program, project, and activity” (PPA). The FAA Operations account has just seven PPAs, one of which is the Air Traffic Organization, which accounts for $7.4 billion of the agency’s $9.6 billion Operations budget. So it is the entire ATO (and each of the six smaller PPAs within Operations) that must make a 5.0% cut. For the ATO, that amount is $371.8 million—and the ATO legally has complete discretion in how to accomplish that overall cut.

What the FAA has announced is mostly across the board—furloughing nearly all employees for two days every month, April through September (the end of FY 2013). That is expected to cause serious air traffic delays due to under-staffing of towers, TRACONs, and centers. In addition, ATO plans to use its discretion to shut down 168 contract towers, leaving those lower-activity airports to operate without towers–or shut down. This plan is a classic example of the “Washington Monument” ploy, in which a government agency tries to stave off budget cuts by imposing the most pain that it can on taxpayers, hoping they will raise such an outcry that the budget cut will be overturned.

But if the object is to achieve a 5% ($371.8 million) reduction in the ATO’s budget for this fiscal year, there is a far less-destructive way to do it. Reduce the ATO’s payroll by 5% not by furloughing employees and shutting down towers but by reducing the size of paychecks. From the standpoint of employees, including controllers, they are going to be out the same amount of money in either case. But with a 5% all-hands pay cut, the ATO would preserve all current services (including all contract towers) and prevent the layoffs of those staffing the towers planned for shut-down for the entire second half of FY 2013.

Yes, I know that most ATO employees have union contracts, and there might be a legal question about whether the FAA or even Congress could impose a change in contract terms. But if that’s the case, what a wonderful expression of public-spiritedness (as well as solidarity with their brethren facing not furloughs but layoffs) it would be for NATCA, PASS, and any other ATO unions to voluntarily agree to a 5% pay reduction in order to maintain the level of air traffic services on which this country depends.

It’s not as if they haven’t received nice annual increases over the past four years, while numerous taxpayer households faced reduced disposable income, and in some cases layoffs, furloughs, and bankruptcies.

My advice to aviation groups seeking to stave off disruptions to air travel is to forget about trying to undo the sequester. Instead, let’s focus on getting through this very modest budget cut with the least possible harm to air travel.

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1 Comment on "Saving Air Travel from the Sequester"

  1. You have no idea what you are talking about. We have not received a raise for 3 years. ATO tech ops. Don’t group everyone in the FAA together. We are the ones that keeps the organization running. You probably make more money than i, and yet you suggest I take a 5% cut in pay! Shame on you.

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