If you had taken a plane ride from big cities like New York,
Dallas, or Los Angeles in the past few days, you most likely had to
endure an excruciatingly long delay, thanks to the
sequestration-linked furlough of air traffic controllers.
Because the Federal Aviation Administration has been forced to trim
its 2013 budget after sequestration came into effect, the agency
has decided to furlough some 1,500 (about 10%) controllers per day,
with the manpower shortage causing a massive gridlock at the
nation's busiest airports. The Associated Press noted on Tuesday
that an 8 a.m. EDT New York-bound
) flight was stuck on the runway in Washington, DC, for two hours,
which meant that an Amtrak Acela train that took off at the same
time actually arrived earlier.
New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Source:
Who should we blame for the misery wrought on travelers? It depends
on who you ask. Republicans say that the FAA could have enacted its
mandated budget cut of $637 million without furloughing
controllers. The FAA administrator, Michael Huerta, in response,
asserts that he had no choice but to idle staff as a large portion
of the agency's budget went to payroll.
New York Times
appears to side with the FAA. An op-ed in the
on Wednesday read:
As it happens, the sequester law is clear in requiring the FAA
and most other agencies to cut their programs by an even amount.
That law was foisted on the public after Republicans demanded
spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling in 2011.
Since then, the party has rejected every offer to replace the
sequester with a more sensible mix of cuts and revenue increases.
Mr. Boehner is so proud of that strategy that
he recently congratulated his party
for sticking with the sequester and standing up to the president's
demands for tax increases.
But drastic cuts in spending carry a heavy price. Republicans
certainly don't want voters they care about - including business
travelers and those who can afford to fly on vacation - to feel it.
They continue to claim that the $85 billion in this year's
sequester can be covered by eliminating waste, fraud, consultants,
and the inevitable grant to some obscure science or art project.
And, of course, to programs for the poor.
is of the opinion that the FAA could not have avoided the staff
furloughs because of how sweeping the sequester budget cuts are.
Wall Street Journal
has a contrasting view. Its own op-ed on the topic argues that the
Obama administration chose to inflict budget cuts in a way that
would result in flight delays in order to make the sequester as
unpopular as possible:
The White House claims the sequester applies to the budget
category known as "projects, programs, and activities" and thus it
lacks flexibility. Not so: This is a political pose to make the
sequester more disruptive. Legally speaking, the sequester applies
at a more general level known as "accounts." The air traffic
account includes 15,000 controllers out of 31,000 employees. The
White House could keep the controllers on duty simply by allocating
more furlough days to these other non-essential workers.
Instead, the FAA is even imposing the controller furlough on every
airport equally, not prioritizing among the largest and busiest
airports. San Francisco's Napa Valley airport with no commercial
service will absorb the same proportion of the cuts as the central
New York radar terminal, which covers La Guardia, JFK, and Newark
International, as well as MacArthur, Teterboro, New Haven,
Republic, and other regional fields.
Huerta spoke to the specific claim about not furloughing more of
controllers at quieter airports today at a Senate hearing.
, he said that he would be picking "winners and losers" if he did
so because airlines that operated from busier hubs would benefit at
the expense of those operating at less congested airports.
Huerta also said that his agency did not receive any guidance on
how to implement budget cuts from the White House's Office of
Management and Budget.
While it seems to still be unclear if the White House or the
Republicans should be blamed for the flight delays, what's certain
is that as airlines will feel the pain as badly as passengers.
Earlier this week,
Delta Air Lines
) reported that the sequester would hurt its income this month.
"We are taking actions to mitigate the decline in close-in demand
we saw in the last part of March, and we expect the impact of the
sequester, combined with a softening of leisure demand, to result
in a 2% - 3% decline in April's unit revenues," Delta President Ed
Bastian said in a statement.
Given that busy airports have been hit the hardest by the
furloughs, airlines like
), which have hubs in the most popular markets in the country, will
be hurt much more than small regional companies.
Airlines might also be liable to pay fines of up to $27,500 per
passenger, because under current Department of Transportation
rules, passenger-carrying planes are not allowed to be delayed on
the tarmac for three or more hours.
The industry is seeking a suspension of this law, arguing that
current flight furlough-caused delays are out of its hands.
"We believe granting this exemption serves the best interests of
the flying public by providing airlines with the operating
flexibility necessary to focus on responding to the FAA's projected
delays in ways that minimize and avoid worsening the disruption and
inconvenience to our passengers," said Katie Connell, a
spokesperson for Airlines for America, an industry trade group, to
So far, shares of publicly traded airline companies have not been
greatly affected by the flight delays. United Continental, US
) all closed in the green yesterday, while
(JBLU) inched down 0.14%. Delta was the worst hit, dipping 1.56%,
thanks to sluggish revenue guidance for the second quarter.