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Transportation Secretary says he’s not “making up” dire consequences of sequestration to flying

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood assured Americans Sunday morning that the Obama administration is not “making up” claims that sequestration will dramatically affect flight times just to scare Republicans in Congress into cutting a deal with President Barack Obama.

LaHood reiterated his earlier claims that unless Republicans and Democrats in Congress come together this week to find a solution to avoid the automatic spending cuts set to go into effect Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will have to substantially reduce the number of air traffic controllers in the nation’s airports, thereby reducing the number of flights that are able to take off and land.

“We’re not making this up, David. We’re not making this up in order to put pain on the American people,” LaHood told “Meet the Press” host David Gregory. “We are required to cut a billion dollars, and we’re going to do that unless congress gets together and works together and compromises on this issue.”

If Congress does not come up with a plan by March 1 to avoid the $85 billion in across the board cuts, most federal government agencies will be required to reduce their budgets by millions of dollars and many non-essential government workers will see their work schedules cut down by one day every two weeks or temporarily eliminated altogether as part of government furloughs. The Transportation Department alone will be forced to make $1 billion dollars in cuts to its 2013 budget, with the FAA and it’s 47,000 employees soaking up $600 million of that.

LaHood claims that the bulk of the FAA’s cuts will affect the FAA’s roughly 14,750 air traffic controllers. In a letter to the Department of Defense and the aviation industry, LaHood said Friday that 100 air traffic control centers will have to be shut down during the sequestration to meet the agency’s amended budget. Furloughs would not take place until April because the government has to give employees 30 days official notice of the changes and cannot do so until the sequestration actually goes into effect this Friday.

The Department of Transportation is warning Americans that the furloughs would essentially cut the number of flights that are able to leave the airport each day in half and delay flight times by 90 minutes in the nation’s busiest airports until the end of the current government fiscal year on September 30.

What remains unclear, however, is why the FAA would be ‘forced’ to reduce the number of air traffic controllers instead of cutting overhead.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” this morning host Candy Crowley asked LaHood if it was true that the number of domestic flights in the U.S. is down 27 percent from pre-9/11 levels, while the FAA’s budget is up by a whopping 41 percent. LaHood either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer the question, throwing more skepticism on his claims that it is necessary for the FAA to cut air traffic controllers to meet its obligation to cut $600 million from its budget over the next seven months.

When LaHood was asked a similar question by Gregory on “Meet the Press” LaHood claimed that air traffic was “back at a par prior to 9/11.”

“We know a lot of people are flying,” he said.

In response to a follow up question from Gregory about why he was “worrying about dire consequences” instead of spending his time “coming up with the best way to make these cuts that protect essential services” LaHood argued that it wasn’t as simple as that.

“The point is that the sequester doesn’t allow us to move money around. That’s the difference here. If we could shift money around, certainly we would do that,” LaHood said, opting not to go into more detail.

LaHood promised that the one area that would not be compromised by the sequestration was safety. In order to make sure that planes are able to safely leave and and land on airstrips, wait times on tarmacs and inside the airport would likely be increased, he posited.

While LaHood can control safety of planes while in flight, it does not fall under his purview to control the safety of passengers from terrorist threats. TSA is under the Department of Homeland Security, not Transportation. However, sequestration will also affect that government agency as well. TSA would have to furlough its screeners for seven (non-consecutive) days, which DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano says could delay security lines by up to an hour for domestic flights in order for airport security not to be compromised.

Congress has until Friday to come up with a plan to avoid sequestration from taking place and until April 1 to stop furloughs from happening. While it is still possible for Congress to meet its self-imposed deadline, it is looking more and more unlikely that sequestration will occur, if only for part of the remaining fiscal year.





  1. LaHood is just another Obama nitwit spitting hot air for his boss, hoping the public will panic and try to intervene which is our only hope of putting a halter on Obama’s spending habits and lying to the gullible public. Uninformed or liar, take your choice, LaHood spouts that a 100 Air Traffic Control Centers will have to be shut down. The correct name is Air Route Traffic Control Center and surely he knows that only 22 Centers cover the entire airspace of the US including Hawaii and Alaska plus a smaller Center known as a CERAP that is located at San Juan, Puerto Rico to control flights in a large portion of the Caribbean. I was a Center Controller/Supervisor at the Memphis Center for many years. I can assure the public that if any one is furloued it will be admistrative folks, staff and trainees at Centers. Air Traffic Controllers in Centers will not, repeat, NOT be affected. A small number of small airports with part time contractor controllers may hit the road but safety and normal flow of traffic will not miss a beat. I’ve seen similiar scare stories many times during my career. Purely Obama propoganda.
    Charles D (Charlie Dog) Richardson

    1. Eric Gawlak says:

      I also heard that 100 towers will be shut down. I don’t know if LaHood just has his facts wrong or that the sequestration will actually affect Towers and Centers. I am glad to see that someone thinks ATCs will not be directly affected by this in Centers but if towers are completely shut down, that will most definitely lay-off controllers, at least temporarily anyway. I am planning on going to school to be an ATC and I was under the impression that there is a demand for these jobs because of the ever-growing traffic rates. However if these cuts pass, I’m not sure what to think. More research is in order.

      1. Eric don’t believe 10% of the bullshit the Feds throw at the public. I’ve been there, done that ie ATC Controller/supervisor in a ARTCC (Center). As in the past they may temporarily lay off a few (overbloated) staff and trainees at Centers and busier Terminal areas (Approach Control located in Towers) plus shut down a few VFR contract control towers at small airports that are financed by the FAA. But the big Control facilities will not miss a beat. Imagine what Fred Smith would do if he couldn’t get his FEDEX airplanes in the sky even for one day. The sequester is a good thing. In fact it’s the only thing that Obama has initiated in 4 years that I commend him for implementing.
        Good luck on your ATC quest. Before you invest a lot of money on ATC schools such as Embry Riddle, get a physical from an FAA aproved physician.

  2. NapAdvocacy says:

    The growth in the FAA’s budget isn’t so easily dismissed as wasteful.

    It’s important to keep in mind that FAA funding primarily comes from user fees, which mostly consist of a variety of excise taxes like the passenger ticket tax and the private jet fuel tax. These funds are deposited in the Aviation Trust Fund, from which FAA draws much of its operating income. But the proportion of the budget funded by the ATF has dropped dramatically over the past five to eight years, with the difference coming out of the General Treasury Fund. I haven’t got the numbers handy, but I think the General Fund portion of FAA’s budget went from about 17% to 44% of total expenditures between 2001 and 2010. The ATF is exempt from the sequester, so LaHood has to make the 8.2% cuts out of items funded from the Treasury (i.e. that 44% of the FAA’s budget).

    For starters, flights are definitely back above pre-9/11 levels, so that’s not a smart attack to make on Sec. LaHood. Check this site for the data: I don’t know where the hell Candy Crowley got her numbers, but unless she cherry picked the peak months from 2000 and compared them to the least travelled months from 2012 while also excluding cargo flights (which ATCs are responsible for as well), a 27% drop is pure fantasy. There’s strong seasonal variation in flight numbers, with January-February representing the trough and July-August the peak. If you compare August of 2001 (the last month before 9/11) to January of 2013 (the most recent complete month), maybe there’s a 27% drop, but that’s comparing apples to oranges in an especially disingenuous manner.

    Instead of monthly comparisons, it makes sense to look at yearly numbers, particularly when discussing an annual budget. Annual flights were up 17% in 2012 over 2000. 200 was the last full year before 9/11, and 2001 had fewer flights anyway so 2000 is a less favorable baseline to which to compare the FAA’s budget growth. In absolute numbers, total flights went from about 8.2m per year in 2000 to 10.2m in 2012. Most of that growth occurred between 2002 and 2008, with the number of flights stagnating and even slightly declining since 2009. In 2005, at the peak, flights were up 37% over 2000 with over 11.9 million per year.

    But if we’re planning a long-term budget, it makes sense to plan for peak or near-peak demand years, not the recession induced trough years. That’s because it’s very difficult to adjust the size of the ATC workforce on an annual basis. Training times are too long and, given that there is really only one employer of this particular kind of worker, turnover costs more than offset any savings from reducing the workforce during off years. So if we expect the economy to rebound and flights to pick back up, we might want to leave a little upward leeway in the FAA’s budget. If that’s our strategy, then the 41% increase in FAA budget could be completely explained by the 37% increase in flights during peak years.

    But that’s not actually the case, payroll has accounted for a lot of the increase but certainly not all of it. Three programs have driven the increase in Treasury funded spending. First, the air traffic controller payroll has nudged upwards pursuant to a contractual settlement in ’09 or ’10 (can’t recall the exact date) that reinstated pay increases Clinton put into place and Bush tried to reverse with only temporary success. Second, spending on badly needed next generation ATC systems has contributed to budget growth (recall that our current system uses 1970s era technology, so this isn’t necessarily a bad place to be spending money given the huge advances in computers since then). Third, the federal share of Airport Improvement Programs (AIPs) has skyrocketed.

    LaHood can’t reduce wages because of the contractual settlement, so his only tool for reducing payroll costs is furloughing staff (which is effectively a wage cut anyway, but with a corresponding decrease in staffing). And investment in next gen systems is badly, badly needed and long overdue. Not to mention that it will save money in the long run by reducing accidents attributable to human error and ATC staffing requirements through automation–which is a back door way of addressing the payroll issues as well.

    AIP spending, though, would be a great place to make cuts and the best method to do it fits in well with the conservative preference for state and local programs over federally controlled spending. Airports partially fund their own improvement programs through a per passenger fee called a passenger facility charge (PFC), which they use to support revenue bonds that finance runway improvements and capacity expansions. The Feds then supplement that spending with grant programs–practically the poster child for pork barrel politics. PFCs have been capped at $4.50 since 2000. Allowing airports to increase this to $8.00 or so could reduce FAA grant commitments by around $2bn, twice what the sequester is requiring DOT as a whole to cut. This would give local and state authorities greater autonomy and control over their own airports, while reducing the federal budget. It would also pass costs on to users, rather than socializing them to all taxpayers through the General Treasury Fund.

    Now here’s the crux of the problem: LaHood does not have the authority to increase the PFC cap. It’s set by Congress. And this is why the sequester is so freaking stupid. We have an easy way to save more than twice what the FAA needs to cut to meet the sequester requirements. Enough to cover the whole Department of Transportation even! But the power to make that cut rests with Congress. So LaHood has his hands tied. Literally the only element of the FAA budget that is large enough to provide the levels of savings mandated by the sequester and over which he has sufficient discretion to cut the needed $600m is ATC payrolls.

    And this is what pisses me off, personally, about how this whole debate is shaking out. The Republicans are working hard to blame the President for coming up with the sequester, the Dems are working hard to make the Republicans look completely unreasonable and to scare the American people into pressuring the Republicans in the House. No one is working hard to identify smart ways of making appropriate cuts.

    I used to work for a Republican politician, but I have long since left the party because there is absolutely no interest in limiting government in a sane and reasonable fashion. It’s all about making the other side look bad. Not that the Dems are any better, but half the jackasses dominating the House can’t wise up to the fact that not every government program is evil and bloated. And even if they are, Republicans can’t win every battle and can’t get their way on every single spending decision. Good government, good politics, and good policy all depend on picking our battles by cutting the right programs and leaving the wrong–or at least less right–ones alone.

    1. NapAdvocacy says:

      Ahem, excuse me I meant to say the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF), not Aviation.