Simple Math: Who is to Blame for Flight Delays?

Let’s take the 2012 FAA budget of $15.9 billion.

Now let’s reduce that by sequestration ($637 million) and you get $15.3 billion.

Adjust it for inflation, using the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI inflation calculator, and you have $14.3 billion in 2008 dollars.

Which is still higher in real terms than the FAA’s 2008 budget.

Air traffic control handled planes in 2008 with less money than the FAA has now, post-sequestration.

What’s more, there were one million more flights in 2008 than there were in 2012.

They used to do a whole lot more than they have to do today, with less money.

A 4% cut to budget, even normalized across an entire year, does not have to wreak havoc on the traveling public unless the FAA chooses to make those cuts in the most painful way they possibly can in order to score a political point.

It’s an open question how much damage they will do to the U.S. economy, and an open question who will get the blame for it from the electorate. But there is no reason for this to happen other than cynical politics, and those involved should truly be ashamed of themselves.

I’m not taking sides in budget debates with this post. All things equal I think that sequestration is a silly way to make cuts, but it’s the result of a dysfunctional political system so it’s unsurprising that we get there. I do think that folks actually running government agencies have an obligation to run them in as mission effective a way as possible under the budget circumstances given, rather than making political decisions which inflict far more damage than necessary in hopes of winning political arguments with the voters.

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 »

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  1. LarryInNYC said,

    “But you most certainly are taking a side, and the side you’re taking is the predictable one based on your political beliefs.”

    Despite following his blog for several years, I’ve never really figured out where Gary sits on the political spectrum. To me that suggests he’s not at either extreme, despite other posters attacking him for being both too conservative and too liberal!

    As an outsider (or “dirty foreigner” if you prefer), it seems to me the US government needs to both cut spending AND raise taxes. There’s an idea guaranteed to offend everyone!

  2. Who is telling you that the FAA will not be performing at 2008 level? This is the whole premise of your post but you do not substantiate it.

    In 2008, only 70% of flights were on-time (delayed 15 min or less). They are 84% now. So if you go back to 2008 funding, assuming your CPI is good -which it is not-,you would still expect a significant degradation in on-time performance.

    2008 was by no mean a good year delay wise. Why would 2012 be any better than 2008 with similar funding? And why do you assume 2012 would be any worse?

    Finally, as has been mentioned before, delaying some other programs might not be any better. First which one?
    Delaying NEXTGEN? Stop funding LM Weather? Breaching contracts? Sure, what a great idea…and I am sure you’re the first to go to Small Claim Court whenever you believe an airline has messed up your Error Fare. Well, in this case if we are messing up with ADS-B implementation, contracted Weather Services… you’ll be dealing with Lockheed Martin, Boeing and the like. Not sure Small Claim court will be the way to go. And not sure the settlement will be cheap…

    And regarding CPI: do you believe the operating cost of going from VOR and NDB stations to WAAS stations increase in the same way as the increase (or decrease actually) you saw in the price of tomatoes, potatoes and yogurt at Kroger? Seriously?

  3. Here’s my perspective: If all controllers are working 10% less, but only a few airports have slowdowns, doesn’t that indicate that all the airports NOT experiencing problems are normally OVERSTAFFED?

  4. Bottom line with the sequester is so much of govt was fenced from sequester (transfer payments, retirement annuities, medical spending, etc), the sequester target was applied to a much smaller base, essentially general govt if you will, making the cuts draconian for those of us working in those programs not fenced off.

  5. Gary, it’s not all up to OMB. Bureaucratic politics and departmental legal standards and requirements are such that the OMB doesn’t have an all-powerful, absolutely free hand to micromanage throughout government in the way you may be suggesting should be done to have US aviation operations run the way you may find to work better for us frequent flyers.

    Andrew’s post is the best response so far about why we get the outcomes we get. The idea about the President and his chief of staff micromanaging all the various bureaucries to maximize harm is an interesting conspiracy theory, especially in an era where such blatant gamesmanship to maximize harm to Americans would be a career-killer as security of communication is largely easily compromised and used against people.

  6. First off, as Gary stated, The FAA’s budget is increased in real terms in the last 5 years, and it has less work to do. Therefore, the service cut has come about through less efficiency in its operations. Outside government, this would get the top brass sacked.

    Secondly, government has only very rarely been able to make economies in what it spends. Look at the UK with a right of center government which has talked for the past three years about making cuts, but has, in fact, increased government expenditure despite cuts in services. There are a variety of reasons for this but one of the most convincing is job protection. Turkeys don’t vote for Thanksgiving and government workers likewise ensure that jobs are safeguarded – from top to bottom.

  7. According to the WSJ, whistleblowers are starting to surface:

    FAA regional employees wrote to blow the whistle on their bosses. As one email put it, “the FAA management has stated in meetings that they need to make the furloughs as hard as possible for the public so that they understand how serious it is.”

    If the FAA is manipulating the delays, that tactic is certain to backfire when it is inevitably exposed. That’s what happened in the original instance of the Washington Monument Syndrome under Nixon. Nixon was one of those guys who always thought he could outsmart his political opponents but rarely did. And he didn’t have to worry about the Internet!

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