The mere prospect of sequestration was supposed to be so unspeakably horrible that even a deeply divided and historically partisan U.S. Congress would never let it happen. The conventional wisdom was that sanity eventually would prevail and a compromise would be reached, thus avoiding billions of dollars in indiscriminate cuts in the federal budget this year and $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade.
We should have known better. Wisdom, conventional or otherwise, often doesn’t play a role in U.S. politics. The country’s two primary political parties are concerned more with emasculating each other than they are with governing, but we’ll let someone else editorialize about that.
Here at Flight Safety Foundation and AeroSafety World, our focus is safety, and with $637 million to be slashed from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) budget this year (by Oct. 1), I think there is ample reason for concern. The budget cuts are going to mean furloughs, likely one day every two weeks, for nearly all FAA employees, and the closing of 238 air traffic control towers across the country, among other measures.
In early March, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta spoke at the Aviation Forecast and Policy Summit organized by the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), and I asked him about the impact sequestration will have on the safety of the aviation system. He responded that in order to maintain safety, the system may need to take a penalty in terms of efficiency. As an example, he offered that Chicago O’Hare International Airport has two control towers. If a situation should arise in which there are not enough controllers available to staff both, operations would be consolidated into one, meaning that one of the airport’s runways would have to be taken out of use.
FAA’s approach is to minimize the impact on the greatest number of travelers. The towers slated for closure are at airports that see fewer than 150,000 flight operations per year or fewer than 10,000 commercial operations per year. The FAA’s strategy is understandable, but I shudder to think what this could mean for general aviation and corporate flying. And what about commercial flights scheduled into airports with unmanned towers?
Perhaps just as disturbing as the fall into sequestration is the notion, voiced more than once at the AAAE event, that this is the “new normal,” that the U.S. aviation system is going to have to learn to make do with less from now on. The immediate pain, of course, will be felt in the form of long lines and flight delays, but what is this going to mean for the development and certification of new technologies and safety enhancements, or changes to existing equipment? How inefficient can the system get before it stalls?