The airport experience will get more aggravating if Congress does not avoid the automatic budget cuts called sequestration, three Virginia Democratic lawmakers said Monday at a news conference inside Reagan National Airport, predicting fewer flights available and longer security lines.
Representatives Gerry Connolly and Jim Moran and Senator Tim Kaine, flanked by members of air travel and pilots’ groups, issued a warning for every American who plans to fly: cuts to the FAA and TSA budgets would affect key personnel who now man air traffic control towers and security screening checkpoints.
Connolly said, “47,000 [FAA] employees could be furloughed one day per two-week pay period, the equivalent of ten percent of their workforce. That number includes 15,000 air traffic controllers. That will affect the scheduling of flights and the availability of flights.” He added, the sequestration cuts would not force a simple belt-tightening but instead affect staffing levels at airports across the country.
Some Republicans are questioning why the possible $689 million FAA budget cut, which amounts to about four percent of the agency’s $15.9 billion budget, would cause so many problems. Moran said sequestration provides no flexibility to Congress or President Obama.
“The cuts are being concentrated on what’s called discretionary programs, which is a minority of the entire federal budget, and they are also being squeezed into a seven month period out of the fiscal year,” Moran said. “So if you had 12 months in which to spread them out, if you had the ability to identify which programs are a higher priority than others, if you didn’t have to cut every program, project and activity equally, and if you could deal with the entire federal budget, the effect would not be anywhere near as severe.”
“We can fix this. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact it’s not that hard to fix,” said Kaine, who said congressional Republicans oppose a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction that includes tax increases and spending cuts.
Some Republicans disagree with that assessment.
Virginia Republican Congressman Frank Wolf was invited to the news conference but did not attend. In a statement released by his office, Wolf urged both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner to embrace “bipartisan plans to turn off sequestration.”
In his letter to the president, Wolf said the best solution is to enact the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which he said would reduce the deficit and prevent the automatic federal budget cuts.
The possibility of additional hour long waits on security lines caused by cuts to the TSA’s budget is not sitting well with travelers. Some are angry Congress has failed to reach a deal to avoid disruptions to air travel.
“They ought to go back to school and learn how to add and subtract. This wouldn’t have happened in the first place,” said one woman at Reagan National Airport who declined to provide her name. “I’m totally disgusted with government.”
Others travelers weren’t buying the dire warnings about 90-minute flight delays.
“I feel that decline in services will be fairly minimal, except perhaps for business travelers. I feel like the amount of money being cut is a small percentage of the total,” said Ed Evan as he sat in the US Airways terminal.
If sequestration takes effect, Congress can act later to restore some of the cuts, but Connolly warned the process will be difficult.
“We have a continuing resolution funding the federal government that expires March 27, so there is an opportunity… to try to fix some of these problems,” Connolly said. “But you have to remember that once sequestration kicks in, that creates a new baseline for the continuing resolution. In other words, the new number is minus the sequestration.”
It remains unclear how much wiggle room the FAA and TSA will have to adjust air traffic controllers’ and security screeners’ work schedules to maintain adequate staffing during peak travel times and the coming summer vacation months.
“The fact is no one knows right now what the impact of the sequester will be,” said Geoff Freeman, the chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association.