Expect Fewer Flight Delays as Air Traffic Control Furlough Ends

Back in February I argued that it wasn’t necessary to cut air traffic control in order to meet the legal requirements of the sequester. I argued that the Administration also already had the legal authority to exercise its discretion in order to minimize the impact to sequester cuts on air traffic control.

Unfortunately, air traffic control slowdowns would be a ‘visible impact’ of the sequester, and so they were being ginned up for potential political gain — to argue that the sequester (and government spending cuts generally) are too painful, and to force Republicans to cave on taxes.

Some commenters argued that it wasn’t possible to cut the FAA budget without furloughing air traffic controllers, since the FAA budget was so heavily skewed towards payroll. That argument turns out to be inaccurate, since new legislation instructs the FAA not to furlough air traffic controllers and to make other cuts to the agency budget instead. The FAA has not claimed to be unable to do this.

As for whether air traffic delays were a political ploy, liberals critics of the President complaining about this new legislation certainly believe that it was.

The flight delays created the largest and loudest public backlash against sequestration since its automatic cuts kicked in nearly two months ago.

By agreeing to provide special treatment to air travelers, Democrats eliminated a major source of public pressure to address sequestration in its entirety, and created a precedent that sequestration’s consequences ought to be addressed by moving funds around — not by raising the revenue, which is fiercely opposed by Republicans.

(It strikes me as odd that not furloughing government employees is seen as a win for Republicans.)

So the only remaining question here is whether the legislation was necessary at all. My critics would argue that the legislation was necessary because the FAA lacked the legal authority to exercise discretion in how the sequester affected its various activities. I argue that the legislation was necessary because the Administration was unwilling to to use its discretion (and indeed, was already using its discretion in furloughing controllers).

My critics contend that sequestration was intended to cut all programs equally, as a blunt instrument (well, not all programs).

I contended instead that the sequestration’s requirement to apply cuts uniformly to “programs,” “projects” and “activities” relies entirely on the Office of Management and Budget to define those things as they are defined nowhere in law (they are not the same as ‘accounts’). And further, the Administration takes great liberties with its authority independent of legislation (as had the previous administration), it would have fallen safely within established precedent to do so here, and indeed ‘problem-solving’ is politically popular and challenges to this authority would have been seen as obstructionist. (Further, since Republicans were proposing legislation to grant the Administration extra authorities to exercise discretion, they were boxed in and precluded from arguing against the exercise of this discretion.)

Ultimately, what’s important for travelers is that air traffic control returns to ‘normal’. But normal is likely not to be good enough, as not only will these same cuts become an issue again come the new fiscal year (October 1) absent additional action from either side, but the system itself is outmoded. The FAA’s long-term approach is more technology. Transportation researcher Bob Poole argues for the de-politicizing funding of air traffic control, the way that Australia, Canada, Germany, and scores of other countries have done and the way that the Clinton Administration had proposed doing in 1994.

I personally believe that a decade from now planes should be more like cars (albeit with, and aided by, much greater technology) and that decentralized traffic management will allow for much greater air traffic throughput.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I am normally willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but this one is on Obama. Unfortunately, he used the livelihood of air controllers to make some sort of political statement that was rapidly rejected by a split party Congress that usually agrees on nothing.

  2. I found the sequester was just a new thing in the airlines’ arsenal on which they could blame delays. Ever delay I experienced was suddenly due to sequester, even if the delay was “par for the course” for the route I flew.

    Not expressing any opinion on the furloughs themselves here, but the airlines certainly used it to their advantage.

  3. After winning re-election against a weak opponent by a percent or two, {hardly a mandate}, with far fewer people even voting than last time, Obama felt he now could use the power of an Imperial Presidency to push thru whatever legislation he wanted, while utterly destroying the Republican Party. Au contraire..

    Obama has failed three times in a row to use what Charles Krauthammer calls “emotional blackmail” to force thru a far left agenda. Failure one: using a hyped fear of a fiscal cliff to expand government spending and taxation to ever greater heights. Failure two: using the terrible pain of parents of dead school children to push thru massive anti Second Amendment laws. Now failure three: using flight delays to end the sequester, and blaming it all on the Republicans.

    It’s not that Obama didn’t get all that he wanted on these issues. He got nothing at all on any of them. The vote in the Democrat majority Senate to put ATCs back to work was unanimous. I think it is beginning to dawn on him what “lame duck” means…..

    One could only hope that Obama would now see the dead end of his hyper-partisan approach, and fulfill his original campaign promise to work together with Republicans, as Clinton did in his second term, to actually improve the economy and lower the deficit. I’m not holding my breath waiting though. Sigh….

  4. The sequester was set up in such a way that ATC would have to take a hit too unless the Administration wanted to violate the determinations of Administration, Department and Agency counsels about how to abide by Congressional legislation that was already the law of the land.

    The House and Senate agreed to spare us ATC headaches that were in place because of the sequester and the Administration went along for it.

    The ridiculous conspiracy theories being circulated about the Administration wanting to maximize the pain for the flying public by creatively working cuts at the DOT and FAA are just that: ridoculois conspiracy theories.

    Do some FOIA requests and find out more about this …. it just may challenge the assumptions made by those who are mistaken.

  5. Robert Hanson, your revisionism is amusing but hollow.

    The following words from Robert Hanson are ridiculous:

    “After winning re-election against a weak opponent by a percent or two, {hardly a mandate}, with far fewer people even voting than last time, Obama felt he now could use the power of an Imperial Presidency to push thru whatever legislation he wanted, while utterly destroying the Republican Party.”

    The Obama Administration was quite familiar with the 2012 election results and the make-up of the US House and Senate. They knew then and know still that the Republicans had the House control while the Senate is subject to Republican filibusters that can’t be easily overcome.

    So much for your myth about the President supposedly believing he could push through whatever legislation he wanted.

    Some people spout such fictional nonsense that I can’t but be amused. Thank you Robert Hanson for your creative fictional writing.

  6. God forbid the sequestration should affect well heeled air travelers and mileage runners. We must ensure that any federal budget cuts ONLY affect lower income people.

  7. Actually, we are not the reason this was changed. The first article I read after the vote said something like this:

    “After the vote on Friday, members of Congress headed to the airport to fly home to their districts.”

    Member of Congress, who often fly home and back every weekend, were not about to spend an hour or two at the airport each way.

  8. Robert Hansen ranted: “After winning re-election against a weak opponent by a percent or two [blah blah blah]”

    The first thing Mr. Hansen needs to do is take remedial grade school arithmetic, or a course in truthfulness.

    Obama defeated Romney by 3.9%, which is wider than the margin in 6 other post-WWII elections. As a comparison, Bush II’s margin of victory was 2.4% against Kerry and minus 0.5% against Gore.

  9. The idea that Gore won the popular vote is an urban myth. This is from that wild eyed conservative propaganda machine: PBS. 😀


    An Online NewsHour Report

    More than three months after Democrat Al Gore conceded the hotly contested 2000 election, an independent hand recount of Florida’s ballots released today says he would have lost anyway, even if officials would have allowed the hand count he requested.

    Nevertheless, my point was that Obama did not score a mandate from a majority of US voters, many of whom did not vote this time, despite the fact that he continually claims that his agenda is not his real agenda. Had he run on gun control, higher taxes on the middle class, much higher government spending, etc. he would not have won.

    Instead, if you saw the 2012 debates, he fervently promised ‘the sequester will absolutely not occur’. Now that he is trying to push an agenda radically different from what he campaigned on, he is losing every major vote, even among the Democrats in the Senate.

    He couldn’t get enough votes in the Senate to even bring the gun control bill to a vote. Despite the fact that it had been so watered down by then, that it would have done virtually nothing. And he only lost the Senate vote on returning the ATCs to work by 100%. So yes, I can see why you would prefer to talk about Bush/Gore….

  10. @Robert Hanson – it would really help your arguments if you bothered to post actual rather than made up historical facts. You wrote “The idea that Gore won the popular vote is an urban myth.” According to every tally I’ve seen, Gore beat Bush by a half million votes or so.

  11. Robert, not the smartest of the bunch are you? You realize that piece of news is about one State, don’t you? And you know we have 50 of them, don’t you?

  12. @Robert Hansen

    You are aware of the fact that the Senate gun control bill received more than 50 votes? In any normal democracy that would count as a majority.
    It is only the routine use of the filibuster by the Republican Party -and, yes, this is undeniably without historical precedent- that has turned the Senate into a supermajority requiring body.

    As for the sequester, it were Republicans who insisted on a spending cuts only approach during the debt ceiling debate in 2011 (and every subsequent stand off). And after negotiations, spending cuts is what they got. John Boehner even gloated he had achieved 98% of what he wanted.
    The flight delays are just a very visible part of the fact that, yes, cutting government spending actually has consequences. It all sounds nice in the abstract, until you actually have cut something. The cuts have now moved from something which is highly visible on the FAA budget to something less visible, but that doesn’t mean its inconsequential. If you think that, go have a chat with people whose kids now have to go through a lottery to get into Head Start. Or talk to medical researchers who fear the emergence of new tuberculosis strains that are resistant against nearly all known antibiotics. The research into new antibiotics just took a massive hit in the sequester.

  13. Gary’s blog is not really the place for an openended argument on political ideology. So I’m just going to end here with the observation that cutting a mere 2% from utterly bloated Federal spending that has skyrocketed far beyond the rate of inflation for the past 6 years hardly requires cutting essential services to the bone.

    If any such services are being cut, it’s because someone in authority thinks there is political advantage to doing so. And the vast majority of the American public agrees.

    From Rasmussen Reports Poll on Jan 23, 2013:

    Just 28% of Likely U.S. Voters now prefer a larger government with more services and higher taxes to a smaller one with fewer services and lower taxes, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. That’s down from December’s all-time high of 34%.

    Sixty-two percent (62%) prefer a smaller government, consistent with regular surveying for several years. Ten percent (10%) are undecided.

    To read for yourself, go to Rasmussen Reports, and put the following titles into the search window there:

    62% Favor Smaller Government With Fewer Services, Lower Taxes

    68% Say Cutting Government Spending Solution To Economic Problems

    64% Think Too Many Americans Dependent on Government Financial Aid

  14. As usual, when you get caught in your usual web of lies, suddenly the discussion you have started and have been feeding does not belong here. What a surprise!

  15. @Miguel “Robert, not the smartest of the bunch are you? You realize that piece of news is about one State, don’t you? And you know we have 50 of them, don’t you?”

    According to Obama, there are 60 States:
    YouTube: “Obama Claims He’s Visited 57 States”

    Simply posting the generic phrase “web of lies” hardly trumps the facts I have posted. Did you really think that was going to convince anyone at all? The discussion doesn’t belong here because I am using facts, and you are using ideological slurs. Gary’s blog deserves better than that. Thanks for sharing….

  16. Robert:
    1) The US government is basically an insurance company with a large army that also does some other stuff. As half of the sequester is hitting the discretionary spending part (the other stuff), the impact is much higher than just 3%.

    2) The increase in the deficit is mainly caused by fallen revenues, as you would expect when there is a recession. Revenues have fallen further due to multiple tax cuts (for instance pay roll tax cuts), meant to stimulate the economy. Spending has increased too, but less than the fall in revenues and also mainly in the automatic categories unemployment benefits and food stamps (although unemployment benefits have also been expanded), which is also something you would expect in a recession.

    As you state you appreciate facts, I hope you now agree that your first two paragraphs in 18 were cutting corners slightly too aggressively

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