Nationwide panic broke on Monday morning when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rolled out furloughs to a near-15,000 of its air traffic controllers in efforts to comply with mandatory sequester cuts. Almost immediately the AP reported massive delays, traveler discontent, and a grim glimpse of things to come. But when the chaotic day drew to a close, two questions emerged: Were the delays a direct result from FAA spending cuts? And more importantly, were these cuts necessary?
The answer to the first question is a muddled yes and no. Flight delays that occurred yesterday were affected by cuts in some airports, notably Charlotte-Douglas and Los Angeles International, but only during brief periods throughout the day. It’s worth noting that the delays themselves were moderate—anywhere from 16 to 60 minutes. NPR continued to update a live blog as the situation unfolded and concluded that:
“The FAA's furloughs didn't bring the massive cascading delays some analysts had feared as of early evening on the East Coast Monday. But many travelers' plans were hampered by delays and cancellations, as rain and windy conditions around New York City forced delays at airports and the rescheduling of flights.”
Not only were airports dealing with air traffic furloughs, but they had to implement the changes during the busiest day for air travel. Despite these issues the FAA’s real-time flight delay chart shows that a majority of airports experiencing delays can be attributed to high winds.
Even though it’s evident that the flight delays haven’t been nearly as severe as expected, that hasn’t stopped the political left from placing blame on the Republican-controlled House. Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat and member of the House aviation panel gave his remarks after the news broke:
"There's a lot finger-pointing going on, but the simple truth is that it is Congress's job to fix this. Flight delays are just the latest example of how the sequester is damaging the economy and hurting families across the country."
Rep. Larsen wasn’t the only one exchanging blows. White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer mused, "What do tours and flight delays have in common? They affect [Congress] members directly."
But were the cuts to air traffic controllers necessary? Following the FAA’s announcement, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) released a statement criticizing the administration’s furlough plans.
“The FAA’s management of sequestration is quickly going from bad to worse. Given that the FAA’s budget increased more than 100 percent over the last 15 years, finding five percent in savings shouldn’t need to significantly impact our nation’s aviation operations. What’s perhaps most troubling is that the FAA has known about the sequester for almost two years and gave Congress and the airline industry less than a week’s notice about its implementation plans.”
Along with the statement Rep. Shuster included a set of targeted areas that would save airports from delays. The list recommended cuts to the nearly $500 million spent annually on consultants, $325 million in FAA supplies and air travel, and 46 aircrafts owned by the administration that cost $143 million to operate.
In addition to Monday’s furlough announcement, the Department of Transportation announced a $474 million grant program, an ongoing part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus package). While the grant allocates some money to repair road infrastructures, past projects have included over $120 million in streetcar implementation, greenways, and multiple undefined “revitalizations”.
The Department of Education and Department of Homeland Security have both come under criticism recently for exaggerating the effects sequestration will have on Americans. It seems as if the Department of Transportation is next in line, deliberately forcing air travel delays in order to inflict the most pain on the largest group of citizens.
Airline companies, pilots, and air traffic controllers have come together and created a site to channel all complaints to the FAA. The group urges citizens to send the FAA a message in hopes that the administration will reverse its politically motivated policy. “Don’t Ground America” can be found here.
Update: In response to a recent HuffPo article that claims the FAA is merely following the mandatory sequester guidelines--two things. First, that article is written in response to this report, which was written before Congress postponed the sequester for two months and before they passed a continuing resolution granting more flexibility.
Secondly, the OMB released a follow-up on April 4th, which states:
"As directed by Memorandum 13-03, in allocating reduced budgetary resources due to sequestration, agencies should generally use any available flexibility to reduce operational risks and minimize impacts on the agency's core mission in service of the American people. Agencies should also take into account funding flexibilities, including the availability of reprogramming and transfer authority."
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