Bringing gridlock to the skies

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As members of Congress come back to their offices Sept. 10 after the August vacation, aviation interests will be eager to see what, if anything, is done about “sequestration,” which might cut $1 billion from the FAA budget.

Money has been a major problem for years. After almost five years of trying, Congress this year passed a long-term budget for the FAA which now is in danger of being undone. The Democrat-controlled Senate has not passed a federal budget for three years. This year’s federal deficit is ballooning to more than $1 trillion. And last year Congress could not agree on a budget and formed a super committee from both parties. This, too, could not reach agreement and produced scheduled budget cuts so severe it believed the entire Congress would have to agree on answering the tough choices. But there has been no forward movement and these draconian cuts are scheduled to go into effect in January unless they are changed by the end of this year.

Those in the know say they see no indication that either side is willing to compromise. If there is no agreement, it will mean cuts for every federal activity, with at least $1 billion chopped from the FAA. In late August, the Congressional Budget Office said unless action is taken before the end of the year, the sequestration could send the nation back into a deep recession, with unemployment again going to more than 9%.

The Aerospace Industries Association recently released a study projecting that the cut to the FAA would result in chopping 1,500 air traffic controllers, closing 246 control towers, which would be mostly at general aviation airports, laying off about 9,000 security screeners for airline airports, and 1,600 customs officials. For some, action must be taken before the election as some union contracts require a 60-day notice for terminations.

Econsult Corp. authored the study. Its vice president, Stephen Mullin, warned unless the drastic cuts are stopped, the FAA would have to slash operations, “bringing gridlock to the skies.”

Marion Blakey, who now heads AIA as its president and was FAA administrator during the George W. Bush administration, says “a billion dollars is a body blow to the FAA.” She added these cuts would send a monkey wrench into the already confused multibillion dollar Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), noting it could delay it by “at least a decade.”

Former Secretary of Transportation and Congressman Norm Mineta said at the time of the study’s release that if sequestration is not stopped, the FAA budget will suffer its most devastating cut in its 54-year history.

The FAA cuts also might mean a decrease in the number of safety and certification personnel, which would result in delays in processing ratings, medicals, weather information, and every other service needed by GA.

Meanwhile, FAA officials have been trying to assure the public that safety is its first priority and will continue to be, even if sequestration takes affect.

While aviation’s alphabet groups are concerned, calling the potential cuts anything from “having a chilling effect” to “frightening,” they are not alone. Aviation is but a small part of the budget question.

Another question is whether sequestration will be allowed to take effect. “It’s anybody’s guess — and up to Congress — whether the cuts actually happen,” Blakey said.

There might be pros and cons to letting sequestration take effect or passing new funding bills. But it leads many to wonder: Is Congress the opposite of Progress?

Charles Spence is General Aviation News’ Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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