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,
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
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."