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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.