Sequester Effect: Air System Becomes Political Tool

Last week three airline trade organizations joined together in legal action against the FAA. During a press conference announcing the suit, the heads of two of the organizations made clear they believe the FAA has become a political football in the hands of an administration playing sequestration politics at the industry's, and the public's, expense.

In the weeks leading up to the enactment of sequestration, the Obama administration did its best to generate fear about the effects of sequestration. For instance, Education Secretary Duncan claimed on Face the Nation that teachers were being laid off. This was false, as was a claim the President himself made about sequestration leading to the release of "criminals." Politico put together a round-up of six administration claims about sequestration, all of which were rated false by various fact-checking organizations.

But it appears the administration is not done playing politics. Last week, the FAA announced it would begin one-day-a-week furloughs of air traffic controllers in order to comply with sequestration. A lawsuit filed by Airlines for America (the airlines trade association), the Air Line Pilots Association, and the Regional Airline Association, argues the Budget Control Act gives the FAA freedom to completely avoid cutting essential personnel.

For its part, the FAA says this is not so. In testimony before Congress this week, FAA administrator Michael Huerta claimed it was not possible to meet the required level of cuts without dipping into personnel salary, which makes up about 60% of the FAA budget.

However, even assuming furloughs were inevitable, the trade group lawsuit argues it was neither wise nor necessary under the Budget Control Act to treat all airports as equally important. By prioritizing furloughs based on the amount of air traffic affected, the FAA could have significantly minimized the pain to the public. So why didn't the FAA choose to do so?

According to the Washington Post, the FAA made an agreement with the air traffic controllers union to distribute cuts equally across the union's membership. The result is that furloughs are felt at major airports, like LAX, JFK and O'Hare, which handle a disproportionate amount of overall system traffic. This is how a 10% cut in operations translates into an estimated impact on 40% of all flights. The FAA chose to minimize the pain of the controllers' union at the expense of the flying public and the industry.

But there is reason to suspect this negative outcome is, if not welcome, being viewed as an opportunity by the Obama administration. Nicholas E. Calio of Airlines for America says he asked the FAA to consider putting the brakes on furloughs, as it did with tower closures, to allow for the possibility of a legislative fix. The response, according to Calio, was that, "the administration will not support any such legislation unless it specifically solves the entire sequestration problem." This certainly sounds like an attempt to use the pain of furloughs to create leverage for a broader deal.

Any doubt that this was part of a coordinated message vanished Tuesday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid echod the administration's approach, "We cannot and should not only address the FAA cuts." And that wasn't all. According to the NY Times, immediately after his appearance before Congress Wednesday, FAA administrator Huerta met with reporters. During the meeting, he referred to Sen. Reid's comments about making a furlough fix part of a larger bargain. Finally, later in the day, White House Spokesman Jay Carney echoed this idea once again, though he did allow that an FAA-only fix might be a possibility.

So there is reason to believe the FAA did not do all it could to minimize pain to the public. And there is reason to believe the administration has been using the furloughs to push a sequester replacement deal. At the least, the White House is attempting to capitalize on its own managerial incompetence.

But at the end of last Friday's 30 minute press conference, Captain Lee Moak of the Air Line Pilots Association suggested the administration seemed to be up to something worse. "Cut to the chase here. They're using the air system--they--as a political football," he stated. Asked to clarify whom he meant, Captain Moak responded, "Whoever is making that decision in the administration, they are using this as a political football."


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