Flying the Government Skies The 4% FAA spending cut that somehow delays 40% of flights.
As travellers nationwide are learning, the White House has decided to express its dislike of the sequester—otherwise known as modestly smaller government—by choosing to cut basic air traffic control services. We wrote about this human- rights violation on Tuesday in "Flight Delays as Political Strategy," but the story gets worse the closer we look.
Start with the Federal Aviation Administration, better known as the Postal Service without the modern technology. Flyers directly fund two-thirds of the FAA's budget through 17 airline taxes and fees—about 20% of the cost of a $300 domestic ticket, up from 7% in the 1970s. Yet now the White House wants to make this agency that can't deliver what passengers are supposedly paying for even more dysfunctional.
Ponder this logic, if that's the right word: The sequester cuts about $637 million from the FAA, which is less than 4% of its $15.9 billion 2012 budget, and it limits the agency to what it spent in 2010. The White House decided to translate this 4% cut that it has the legal discretion to avoid into a 10% cut for air traffic controllers. Though controllers will be furloughed for one of every 10 working days, four of every 10 flights won't arrive on time.
The FAA projects the delays will rob one out of every three travellers of up to four hours of their lives waiting at the major hubs. Congress passed a law in 2009 that makes such delays illegal, at least if they are the responsibility of an airline. Under President Obama's "passenger bill of rights," the carriers are fined millions of dollars per plane that sits on the tarmac for more than three hours. But sauce for the goose is apparently an open bar for the FAA gander.
The White House claims the sequester applies to the budget category known as "projects, programs and activities" and thus it lacks flexibility. Not so: This is a political pose to make the sequester more disruptive.
Legally speaking, the sequester applies at a more general level known as "accounts." The air traffic account includes 15,000 controllers out of 31,000 employees. The White House could keep the controllers on duty simply by allocating more furlough days to these other non-essential workers.
Instead, the FAA is even imposing the controller furlough on every airport equally, not prioritizing among the largest and busiest airports.
San Francisco's Napa Valley airport with no commercial service will absorb the same proportion of the cuts as the central New York radar terminal, which covers La Guardia, JFK and Newark International, as well as MacArthur, Teterboro, New Haven, Republic and other regional fields.
Anyone who has flown in or out of those terminals knows that they are hardly models of efficiency, and one reason is the pre-modern U.S. traffic control system. The FAA still uses ground radar and voice-based communications that were the best technology the 1950s had to offer.
Many planes are now equipped with advanced avionics that enable more direct and precise flight paths, but they aren't allowed to fly these faster, safer routes because the FAA can't track their navigation methods.
For more than a decade the FAA has promised to modernize and make the civil aviation system more efficient and reliable, but the only things it has reliably generated are delays or cost overruns or usually both. The project, known as NextGen, is four years off schedule with no end in sight.