On Monday, 1,500 air-traffic controllers — 10 percent of the total — were furloughed for the day pursuant to a budget deal Congress agreed on last August that none of the lawmakers or its author — President Obama — thought would ever come to pass.
Briefly, it looked as if the air-traffic-control system, with a little bit of luck and some cooperation from the weather, might escape relatively unscathed. But high winds at New York’s three main airports caused delays of one to three hours, which rippled through the system, causing delays as far away as Miami and Los Angeles. An ice storm in Denver didn’t help. Three airlines — US Airways, JetBlue and Delta — were forced to cancel some flights.
And the Federal Aviation Administration says the situation will only get worse during this summer’s peak travel season, with 6,700 flights daily arriving late at major airports and one-third of passengers experiencing delays. By contrast, on the worst travel day of 2012, severe weather forced the delays of 3,000 flights.
The cutbacks are due to Obama’s “sequestration” ploy that forces government agencies to live with budget cuts until Congress relents, agrees on a “grand bargain” deficit-cutting deal or enacts a budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Critics, including some airline-industry executives and some members of Congress, accuse the FAA of planning to create the maximum amount of chaos in hopes that an infuriated public will force Congress to back off and restore at least some funding. Others attribute the same motive to Obama.
The FAA responds that it has to find some way to cut $200 million out of its budget, and the simplest, most cost-effective way to do it is have 10 percent of its controllers be off one day a week from now until Oct. 1. In addition, the FAA plans to close almost 150 control towers at small and medium-size airports on June 15, including the one at Cobb County-McCollum Airport in Kennesaw.
The flying public is likely to be further infuriated by delays going through security because of furloughs of Transportation Security Administration personnel. Arriving international travelers, too, will face delays because of furloughs of customs officers.
Air-traffic controllers complain, with some justice, that they are being used as a political football between the administration and Congress.
Congress, despite its insistence that this time it really means it, has carved out exceptions in the sequester — such as meat inspections and a military tuition program, to name two.
One-size-fits-all government never really works, and Obama and Congress will soon have to decide whether the savings extracted from the FAA budget outweigh the economic damage done by crippling air travel.