Prepare for Air Traffic Delays as the Traveling Public Becomes a Pawn in Budget Battles

The FAA has instituted work furloughs of air traffic controllers, which they claim is necessary to comply with sequestration budget cuts.

These went into effect yesterday, and inbound delays of over an hour could be seen at New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports. The FAA has predicted much longer delays to come at major airports. We’ll see what actually develops, it’s not obvious that even lower staffing levels should cause the degree of delays have been predicted (although they could certainly make it so).

As I wrote to Tyler Cowen, the FAA budget is up substantially over the past decade while air traffic control handles fewer flights.

It’s hardly necessary to cut this deep into air traffic control to comply with the Budget Control Act’s sequestration provisions. And the notion that they can’t make modest reductions to their budget without crippling the nation’s travel is silly.

They have far greater discretion than is generally realized in deciding how to carry out their cuts — the Budget Control Act doesn’t define programs and projects and allows the Administration to draw a circle around those things that get proportional cuts (they could fold NextGen air traffic control capital investments in with their air traffic control budget for sequestration purposes, and defer capital investments if they didn’t want to make other cuts).

Politico covered last month the way that air traffic control cuts have been used as a political tool to make sequestration look as bad as possible.

The President will claim a snarled air traffic system is due to the sequester (with larger implications — if these modest cuts are so disastrous, we can’t consider any larger cuts to the budget).

But will he get enough airplay for this? It depends on what new news comes out of the Boston bombing suspect (or the Jodi Arias trial for that matter!). People were paying attention to the sequester weeks ago, but a lot of time has passed.

This will either be a terrible thing for Republicans, their obstructionism is destroying business travel (and the economy). Or it will be a terrible thing for Democrats, they can’t run the nation’s air traffic control system. It probably depends whose message gets out. If I had to bet, it would be that the Republicans are bad at communicating coherent messages. But there’s the X factor of the news cycle.

Republicans may get temporary blame, the President will hope they cave. If they don’t, the President will ultimately eat disapproval and become open to a targeted ‘fix’ to air traffic control furloughs.

In the meantime the traveling public becomes a pawn in political budget maneuvering. Remember Gary’s first law — all politics is fake (and this applies equally to both sides).

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, 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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. I saw last night that airlines are suggesting to customers they tell the FAA where to make cuts instead. I’d start with their ~52 private jets & the associated maintenance. Anyways, where can we send in our ‘nicely worded’ advice?

  2. Woke up yesterday morning to the lovely email from AA regarding this matter. With a connection through ORD last night, I was planning for “shock and awe” – a nationwide meltdown on the first day of furloughs just to drive the point home. Mercifully, I guess FAA didn’t have that in the cards…

  3. Is the delay temporary or permanent? I have an upcoming Xmas trip leaving Seattle to Narita with connecting flight.

  4. ai am sitying now in DFW for one hour in a plane heading to LGA. Captain announced: “our floght has been sequestered”. And this after running in the airport to make a short international connection.

  5. “Remember Gary’s first law — all politics is fake (and this applies equally to both sides).”

    There are far more than two sides to this. Unfortunately your first law appears to be predicated on blind belief in false equivalency. You’re basically saying that no matter what anyone does you’ll pretend it’s equally stupid, which is precisely what they want you to believe.

  6. @Dax – my claim isn’t ‘no matter what anyone does it is equally stupid” my law is that politics is posturing, it isn’t about policy, and public pronouncements on the part of significant political figures never represent true beliefs.

  7. @Sil – delays inbound usually create delays outbound.

    Last night I was at LGA and my flight home was delayed over an hour due to late-arriving aircraft. When I checked Expertflyer, I saw that the inbound was subject to a ground stop, which didn’t make sense given than NYC weather was perfect. Now I understand what happened.

  8. Sorry, but both sides are not always equally fake on every issue. The amount of the sequester is tiny, and rather than a true reduction in Federal spending, it simply reflects a small reduction in the increase in spending that has been going on for many years. There is no reason the FAA can’t get along with the same amount of money it had several years ago, when air traffic was much heavier.

    While not true of every issue, Obama is the fake one here, not the Republicans who are correct that the sequester need not harm public services unless the Administration wants it to.

    A perfect example of this is that the Administration has ended White House tours for school groups, supposedly out of lack of funds for security “due to the sequester”. Which did not at all prevent the Obama daughters from going skiing in Aspen in Feb, then to the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, followed by another Aspen ski trip for spring break just a month later. The cost of the Secret Service entourage for just one of those three trips would pay for the school group tours for an entire year.

    And no, the truth will not get out objectively to the public. The MSM is totally pro-Democrat, and will slant every story about this as “Republican obstruction”, rather than Republicans demanding a reasonable Federal budget. Case in point, no major network is reminding us that the sequester was designed and promoted by Obama in the first place. When Obama calls the sequester a Republican invention, the MSM should be screaming “liar, liar, pants on fire”, but no, not a peep out of them.

  9. If we keep pretending that there is money to throw around for everything without really prioritizing, we’ll soon see far worse problems than an hour delay. People don’t want to hear that the country is broke.

  10. Alternate explanation: The FAA wants to maximize the chance of a bipartisan bill to selective restore its funding.

    I predict such a bill will be enacted and signed within 3 weeks.

  11. For the sequester to work, there must be political will to make it work. The Administration doesn’t have it, therefore every government organization will feel free to sabotage it in the same way FAA does. Republicans will have to be strong but sorry to say they have no strong will either so sequester is unlikely to work in the end.
    The sad thing also is that the airlines will have yet another way to cover up their operational delays.

  12. Rather than submit to a sequester that attacks everything blindly I’d rather we prioritize our cuts on those areas that take up most of the budget.

    1. Defense spending and socialist programs for veterans. You fought bravely to protect the American way of life. Then you returned home to live like a socialist. Unfortunately we no longer have the money to fund your hypocrisy.

    2. Socialist programs for seniors. You worked hard but you didn’t save enough to retire on your own. We’d love to help but we simply can’t afford it.

    3. Corporate welfare. America would still be America without companies like Exxon or Apple, but those companies wouldn’t have become anything without America.

    4. Tax cuts for the wealthy. Bring back the Reagan era tax rates and stop whining about how hard it is to be a billionaire.

    Focus on those areas and you’ll cut the real waste. The FAA will never have anything to worry about.

  13. @Robert Hanson

    Geez, you again. Time to stop tuning into Faux news so much. Aren’t they part of the “MSM”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.