Threatened Sequester Travel Disruptions Are Political Grandstanding

Last week I suggested that the FAA’s claims of massive pain for travelers as a result of the sequester was political grandstanding and thoroughly unnecessary.

It wasn’t my position that cuts would be costless to them, but that they were contorting themselves to come up with the most painful way possible to account for those cuts. And that there were at least plausible alternatives.

Lots of commenters argued that I must simply not understand the sequester, that the money has to be taken proportionally from each program / project / activity. I pointed out that these things are not at all defined in the statute, and it was still up to the Administration then to choose what that would mean for implementation.

Even so it still seemed extremely odd that the FAA could come up with such draconian cuts that they’d be predicting significant travel delays off a 5% budget cut relative to baseline (increases).

And yet – I feared – that coming up with the worst possible cuts and consequences for the sequester as a scare tactic would box the FAA into actually carrying out those plans instead of less harmful ones, assuming that the sequester comes to pass.

Transportation researcher Robert Poole, who writes the Air Traffic Control Newsletter, agrees with me.

The Administration’s marching orders to all government agencies covered by the sequester law (including FAA’s parent, the Department of Transportation) seem designed to inflict maximum pain on the traveling public, in hopes of mobilizing aviation stakeholders, the media, and the traveling public to demand that Congress change the law. I have tried to figure out how a mandated cut of $600 million—under 5%– in the FAA’s $12.75 billion budget (excluding the exempted airport grants program) could possibly require all-hands furloughs reducing 47,000 daily personnel by 10% and the shut-down of 100 low-activity (mostly contract) towers and ending midnight shifts at 60 or more low-activity towers (which should have been done in any case). This appears to be a classic example of the “Washington Monument” strategy of trying to prevent budget cuts by proposing the worst possible method of coping—rather than finding 5% of the budget that could be eliminated or deferred with the least harm.

He goes on to argue for 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.

This never seemed much of a priority to me, but I gain sympathy for the view given the recklessness with which the traveling public is being held hostage by sequester politics.

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. Of course it’s political grandstanding! The sequester is very silly, this drives that point home, and anyone who disagrees with that has a very obvious agenda… which is why I think you could do a lot better than quote Bob Poole of the REASON FOUNDATION, an organization that would like to see federal budgets cut by a far greater degree than the sequester does. Not that I have anything against Bob’s transportation work – he and I have crossed paths professionally many times, and I generally respect what he does – but this is an issue that he’s hardly going to present in an objective light.

  2. I know that this blog leans right on political issues, but you should at least acknowledge that the 5% cut is compressed over 7 months (the government’s fiscal year ends 9/30), so it is close to a 10% cut for those 7 months. Therefore, it makes sense that some federal employees would be subject to 10% furloughs.

    Anyways, who cares about low-wage TSA workers who are facing pay cuts? Let’s go back to talking about toiletries at Hyatt locations around the world, because that’s what makes us human!

  3. I voted for the idiots so I can criticize ALL I WANT……….Give them the finger as you pass thru the gates………….

  4. @Joe I think you rather misunderstand my politics, especially in a blog post endorsing a Clinton Administration proposal?

  5. Yes that has worked in Canada for air traffic control…not…fees out of control up here. Good luck!

  6. If you look at OMB’s breakout of the cuts to each department. Most department’s so call None discretionary programs are either not cut or slightly cut (eg. SSA). That leaves the 8.2% cut mostly to discretionary programs within each department. Compress what with 7 months left of the FY + 30 days notice to federal workers = 6 months which is equivalent to 16.4% cut for the rest of the FY. So people work at the SSA is relatively safe so who is really screwed – the DoD civilians workers. A huge part of DoD’s budget is Armed Services pay so Congree doesn’t touch that and all the cuts are divided between civilian pay and weapons programs.

  7. The tsa scare tactic wasn’t scary enough so today’s phase 2, of our new movie entitled, ” political grandstanding” is there won’t be enough IRS agents to get you your tax refund. I am embarrassed to be a US citizen as I watch kindergarten play out on my tv everyday. Simply pathetic.

  8. Gary,

    you are really hitting your stride the past few weeks. I love the commentary/analysis and the “quick hits” you post! The posts about lounges/plane/food/hotels can be found in many other blogs but what you’ve been doing recently is downright impressive and one of my first clicks in the morning.

    Again, thanks.

  9. Does Gary lean right? Well, He’s an entrepreneur with 4 businesses (or more) who has worked his ass off. Not to mention he had figured out how to get what he wants in life and seems like a generall happy guy. He doesn’t need big govt to take care of him. does that sound like a republican or a democrat? You tell me.

    I dont care how he votes, but the way he writes puts Gary at the top of reading list each day.

  10. Completely agreed with Gary. It’s political grandstanding. If we can’t trim even that much from projected increased spending (not even from actual spending) we will never be able to do anything to get our budgets under control.

  11. This is total B*%#@ S#%t and I’m surprised the voting public continues to return these jerks to office.

  12. Yes its 5 percent of their budget over a year. But the cuts must be made in 6 months since the government FY isnt a calender year. So its more like a 10 percent cut. However, I have seen way too many idle TSA agents and do not think security back ups will be a big issue.

    One recommendation – keep the blog apolotical as much as possible. I come to to escape the bloom, doom and boom of washington 🙂

  13. I always *suspect* that your politics lean right, Gary, but whenever I’ve read one of your slightly political posts it’s a rational well thought out take on the situation, not the knee-jerk reaction born of political ideology. So, I appreciate your take.
    Peter S makes a good point, though. The cuts aren’t as minor as the initial numbers make them seem. But clearly Congress is doing a reprehensible job of handling the situation they created and if they had any shame they would be trying to make the impact on the public as small as possible.

  14. The cuts result in a 10% loss of manpower over a 6-month period. While I don’t like inflated taxes, nor do I think austerity programs are the answer..

    I’m in the middle of planning a trip through Eastern Europe to Turkey and would you believe, the train service ends at the Greek border? Yes, due to the “austerity program” ALL rail service in Greece has been axed until 2014 at the very soonest. A stupid move, because it creates a far more insular Greece, which cuts down on trade, tourism, and international business.

    Contraction of manpower and services is not the answer. Time and time again economic models and real-life events has proven that. There are other means to reducing costs–utilities, technological, and capital improvement come first to mind–and that is where reductions need to be made.

  15. Remember that these are only cuts ‘relative to baseline’ which means that funding is going up with the sequester, not down. (Although it’s an actual cut adjusting for inflation.) And FAA budgets are still up dramatically over the past decade, despite fewer flights than ten years ago.

    Further, while those cuts are no doubt ‘real’ the FAA is choosing to scaremonger what they mean, there’s no reason they actually need to have the manpower effects that are being discussed.

    I’m not saying that the sequester is the best way to make cuts, please don’t misunderstand. The point of his post is to say that travelers are being used for political gamesmanship.

    As far as the political stuff goes, with the parade of horribles that follows what are actually quite minor cuts compared to those likely coming over the next decade, I doubt we have the political will to do anything better. 🙁

  16. I agree with your analysis. It’s like an unreasonable spoiled spouse when they find our the credit cards are all over the limit and your bankrupt. “Well we won’t be able to feed our children and out gas in the car”.

    I think the US is in for a painful awakening.

  17. The New York Times reports:

    President Obama’s team concedes that the almost certain arrival of across-the-board budget cuts on Friday will not immediately produce the politically dramatic layoffs and airport delays that the administration has been warning about for days.

    But White House strategists say they believe that a constant drip-drip-drip of bad news will slowly emerge in Congressional districts across the country in the weeks ahead, generating negative headlines and — they hope — putting Republicans on the defensive for their refusal to raise taxes.

  18. Even with the sequester, the Department of Transportation will spend more money this year ($73.2 billion) than it spent last year ($72.6 billion).

    If the DoT could provide air traffic control last year, how come they can’t do it this year with MORE money?

    The idea that an American President would impose cuts in the way that is most harmful to American citizens is sickening.

  19. Just take away Congress members’ paycheck until they actually do some work and create a budget. Watch how fast those greedy bastards get it done! If I can’t buy things I cannot afford, how can governments do so sustainably?

  20. I forget who said it, but: “the point of the sword of Damocles is that it hangs.” Now that it’s set to fall, the administration is panicking over the possibility that the public at large won’t notice. Hence the sturm und drang over what a terrible meat cleaver it will prove to be. It just wouldn’t do for the rubes in Peoria to see that the .gov can get by with slightly less of a year to year increase.

  21. The President’s problem is that if he doesn’t make the spending cuts “hurt,” the Republicans win — in the sense that they prove we don’t need unlimited spending to run the government. It goes to the core of what the President believes, which is that more gov’t is the solution to more of our country’s “problems.”

    In the private sector, finding 2.5% of your budget to trim would be a brilliant move. In the public sector, it’s considered the end of the world. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It would be very risky, politically, for the President to inconvenience the public when, obviously, he has other alternatives to make the budget cuts less painful.

  22. From Investors Business Daily:

    Debunking The Myth That Sequester Cuts Will Cause Flight Delays

    But LaHood, taking his cues from Obama, is needlessly trying to panic the public.

    Take the claim that cutting back on flight controllers will lead to massive delays.

    Back in 2000, the FAA handled 23% more air traffic with fewer flight controllers than it employs today, according to the Department of Transportation’s own inspector general, who added this raises “questions about the efficiency of FAA’s current controller workforce.”

    Either air traffic controllers have gotten far less efficient over the past 13 years, or the FAA could get by with about 3,400 fewer of them — without affecting the quality of air travel one bit. Cutting out those excess controllers would get LaHood more than halfway to the $600 million he has to cut from the FAA’s budget.

    And while LaHood ominously talks about closing 100 control towers, what he doesn’t say is that these towers should have been closed long ago.

    In fact, Bloomberg News reports the FAA itself identified more than 100 “zombie towers” that handle so few flights they should be cut back or closed.

    Then there’s the fact the administration has more flexibility in dealing with the sequester cuts than LaHood, or anyone else working for Obama, is willing to admit.

    As the fact-checking site points out, “within the specific programs targeted for cuts, federal managers have a fair amount of discretion about what to reduce.”

    And finally, instead of all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, LaHood could use the current budget cuts as an opportunity to do what Canada did 17 years ago when it also faced a severe budget crunch: fundamentally reform the air traffic control system.

    Instead of a government-run agency, a private nonprofit called Nav Canada now runs Canada’s air traffic control, with user fees rather than federal funds covering the costs. Today, Nav Canada operates with 25% fewer workers than under the old government system, despite a 50% increase in traffic.

    And, unlike the FAA, which has been struggling for years to upgrade its woefully outdated equipment, Nav Canada has deployed state-of-the-art technology that it’s now selling to other countries.

    But such forward, results-oriented thinking is apparently too much to ask of Obama, who instead prefers to govern through fear.

  23. @Jeff – can you apply your keen understanding of the U.S. political system to explain how it is that an “American President” is imposing these cuts? My understanding of the Constitution is that Congress is the body which is required to authorize budgets and appropriations, but obviously my limited knowledge is failing me so I would like your insight.

  24. @ CW Despite the fact that Federal Law requires a budget to be passed each year, Congress hasn’t passed a budget since Obama was elected for his first term, and shows no inclination to do so now. Obama does propose a budget each year, but it is always so out of touch with reality that the last two years every single member of the Senate, Democrat and Republican, voted against it. The Republican majority House passes a budget each year, but the Democrat majority Senate refuses to even vote on it. So the last Federal Budget the US had was when Bush was President.

    Obama, on the other hand, keeps insisting that the things he wants to do are too important to not get done just because Congress won’t vote for them. So he uses Executive Orders and does illegal “recess appointments” to impose them. When the courts rule against this, the Obama Administration goes ahead and does it anyway. The US used to be a country of laws, now we are somewhere between that and a banana republic.

  25. I’ll expand a bit on Peter S’s point about DoD. It caries from agency to agency, but in many cases, significant percentiages of an agency’s funds are so committed to contracts which either guarantee payment or have onerous termination provisions, that even a 10% automatic cut has a dramatic effect on the portion of the budget over which there is any short term discretion.

    Lets say the Do”X”‘s budget is 30% spoken for in contracts that cannot be terminated, 40% spoken for in contracts where the termination provisions are severe enough that they are, effectively, not terminable, and 10% discretionary but politically untouchable, and 20% truly discretionary. A 10% “across the board” cut can only come out of the last 20%.

    True reduction in federal spending,in practice, is a 5 to 10 year enterprise, with efforts focussed on not getting into what are absolutely or practically fixed, long term, obligations. The president had to have known this when he suggested the sequester, and shame on him if he did not.

  26. There’s the usual misconceptions at work here. The FAA shortening the operating hours of control towers is not a problem. Airports and airlines don’t need control towers. So these cuts are actually the nicer thing they could do to ensure that the casual traveller isn’t affected.

    If they reduced hours at 24-hour Tracons or Centers (which is extremely unlikely), you would notice a difference.

  27. Instead of attacking the way the sequester is IMPLEMENTED why not attack the sequester itself? All tax bills originate in the House, so why not attack the House for failing to repeal the sequester?

    Oh yeah, I forgot. It’s just a lot more satisfying to clutch at pearls and blame the President.

  28. @bangkokiscool – I do not lay blame for the sequester at the feet of the President. I was simply answering the question limited to travel — I was not discussing the sequester’s effects on defense, whether it ought to be replaced with a mix of cuts and new revenue — anything of the sort. I was simply making the claim that the sequester does not necessarily imply the sort of inconveniences to travelers that the FAA was projecting. Everyone else is going all Republicans vs. Democrats on this…

  29. @bangkokiscool The reason for blaming this on the President is simple. This was Obama’s plan to begin with. He twisted arms in Congress to get it passed, assuming that when the time came, he could use the negative consequences of it to once again force thru even more tax increases, with no debt reduction at all. Congress called his bluff on that, and here we are, stuck with Obama’s plan.

    Now Obama is trying to lay the blame on the Republicans, but it isn’t working. Bob Woodward is reminding people that this is indeed Obama’s creation, and the White House is really angry, and threatening that if he doesn’t stop telling the truth about that he “is going to be sorry”. 🙁

  30. @ Gary I don’t think you were making too political an argument, it was your commenters that seemed to be happy to parrot talking points.

    @ Robert Hanson, assuming you’re right in everything you said, why doesn’t Congress simply repeal the sequester?

  31. @bangkokiscool A repeal, short of a massive majority in Congress, would face an Obama veto. As I said, Obama intends to use this to either force massive growth in government spending, or to paint the other side as economy wreakers. So the Dems aren’t about to vote to simply delete it.

    And the sequester, tiny as it is, while not stopping the skyrocketing of Federal debt, is at least slowing it somewhat. So conservatives see it as their only way of doing admittedly too little, too slowy, but at least something in the right direction. So they won’t vote to end it either.

    But you are missing the point. Obama and Co. want to use the Sequester meataxe to pummel the Republicans into voting for more taxes, and more spending, and greater and greater debt. If that doesn’t work, they intend to paint the opposition as the ones who “wrecked the economy”. They figure it’s a political win either way. A win, that is, for Obama. A major loss for the ordinary American…

Comments are closed.