Pending Budget Cuts Could Hit FAA Hard

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An air traffic control tower at LaGuardia Airport

While the concern over the possibility of steep federal budget cuts in January mostly focuses on the Washington metropolitan region’s defense contractors, representatives of the aviation industry say sequestration – the Washington term for automatic budget cuts – could worsen your experience at airports and damage the economy.

The Federal Aviation Administration faces a $1 billion cut from its $15.9 billion budget if Congress cannot reach a deal on long-term deficit reduction by the end of the year. Sequestration would take effect Jan. 2.  About three-quarters of the potential budget cut would affect the FAA’s day-to-day operations.

“It would be between 1,200 and 1,500 controllers that would be laid off.  There would be the closing of some towers.  You simply can’t operate the whole system at full speed if you don’t have the money,” said Marion Blakey, the head of the Arlington-based Aerospace Industries Association, a group that lobbies for the manufacturer and suppliers of aircraft.

While the safety of air travelers would be safeguarded, service at airports would suffer with fewer possible flights and longer lines to get through security, said Blakey, a former FAA administrator.  The region’s economy would also take a hit, according to a report released by the Blakey’s group.

“An airport like BWI (Baltimore Washington International) generates over $5 billion in economic activity for the state of Maryland.  You are going to lose some of that under this situation,” she said.

To what extent large and small airports would be affected remains to be seen. Congress could pass legislation to avoid sequestration or even defer it for several months, but if the budget cuts occur in early January it is unclear how many, if any, air traffic control towers would close. A spokesperson for the FAA referred reporters to a memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“I don’t think I subscribe to the notion that they will shut down service in smaller communities.  That’s a very unlikely scenario,” said Todd Hauptli, a vice president at the American Association of Airport Executives in Alexandria, which lobbies on behalf of airport managers and operators.

“My prediction is [sequestration] would end up being shorter rather than longer in part because of the impact on aviation and the traveling public,” Hauptli added. “I don’t think the American people will end up being very patient and I think Congress will be forced to act.”

The FAA may be forced to cut money from its ongoing endeavor to complete a satellite-based navigation system designed to improve the efficiency of airports’ operations, known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen.

“Sequestration could deal a real body blow to NextGen because when you are trying to find money in a reduced budget, you tend to go to the investment accounts and the new developments because you have to keep the current operations,” said Blakey, who helped launch the NextGen project while at the FAA.

Whether you are a lobbyist with an interest in keeping the FAA’s operations at full speed or just a traveler taking a vacation, sequestration could result in the same frustrations borne from lawmakers’ failure to compromise.

“I referred to sequestration as the sword of Damocles that was supposed to be hanging over the head of Congress forcing them to act,” said Hauptli. “It hasn’t worked so far but I’m still hopeful that it will work before it has to kick in.”