The FAA Had No Good Reason to Avoid Flight Pileups

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, speaks to reporters FAA spending cuts on April 23 on Capitol Hill Photograph by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

Yesterday the office of Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, announced that he and Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, now have 32 co-sponsors for a bill the two are calling the Protect Our Skies Act. It states that the Federal Aviation Administration may not close any air traffic control towers, this year or next. Its co-sponsors, a bipartisan and mostly rural mix, include Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky and the Senate’s majority leader.

Agreed, then. Our skies shall be protected. If the federal government is to save money, it won’t be by laying off its air traffic controllers. They’re too important, for protecting both our skies and some jobs in the states basking in the sunshine below.

Also yesterday, flight delays piled up around the country. This is the fourth day since the FAA began mandatory furloughs of traffic controllers to start coming up with the $637 million it needs to meet the budget cuts outlined in the sequester. The agency says it has experienced “staffing challenges” in New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas-Fort Worth, among other places. Senator Moran said at a press conference: “Politics is playing a significant role in determining what actions the FAA is taking.” Of course it is. What exactly did Moran, Blumenthal, and the other 32 senators think was going to happen?

The sequester was designed to be stupid, to inflict needless and inefficient pain. Neither side understood it to be a blueprint for necessary cuts to discretionary spending, but rather an outcome so toxic to voters that all of Washington would be encouraged to avoid it. All of Washington did not avoid it. So how could anyone expect that the agencies affected would cooperate, inflicting as much pain as possible on themselves, and none on the rest of us?

The FAA is an operational agency. Slightly more than 70 percent of its 2013 budget, $9.7 billion, actually goes to paying people to do a job the rest of us would consider immediately necessary—direct air traffic. The agency also has $2.8 billion to put toward upgrading its systems and $3.4 billion for construction grants to airports. Today, Michael Huerta, who runs the FAA, told a House subcommittee that he had taken “full advantage” of everything it could do to prevent sequester cuts from affecting passengers.

Yet last week, when the FAA’s inspector general was on Capitol Hill, he testified that, while total air traffic since 2000 had declined 23 percent, the total number of air traffic controllers had increased. The FAA could save money, the IG said, through higher productivity per controller and better scheduling.

So before the sequester, the agency already wasn’t wringing all the savings it could out of its controllers. This suggests it could have found money without ordering so many furloughs and affecting travel.

Why should it? Furloughs in the agency’s operations budget are relatively easy to stop and start. The rest of its work consists of infrastructure projects, which, once stopped, are hard to start up again and likely to get even more expensive with the delays. That is, cuts to FAA operations inflict immediate pain on the rest of us. Cuts to the rest of its budget inflict immediate pain only on the FAA.

There is no such thing as a unified executive or legislative branch. Washington is full of people with different goals, using whatever they can grab hold of to get there. Completely independent of the White House, any agency head wants to preserve funding, and to do that, he has to make his agency valuable. Almost three-quarters of what the FAA does is valuable or—as Senators Moran and Blumenthal put it, protecting our skies. This power is not a new realization. Air traffic controllers were counting on it when they went on strike in 1981, for example (two days before Ronald Reagan fired them).

In 2013, why would the FAA accept pain, and inflict none back, just because Congress and the president can’t get it together to pass a budget? The FAA has no earthly reason to save Congress from its own inadequacies. The sequester was supposed to be stupid and awful. This is what stupid and awful looks like.

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