Oops, It’s Flightless Fridays

Option B to Closing Airports Due to Congressional Sequestration Antics

Scott Lilly responds to criticisms of his “Oops, I Lost the Airport” report on the consequences of a 9 percent budget cut at the Federal Aviation Administration.

An American Airlines jet takes off from Logan International Airport in Boston under cloudy skies. (AP/ Michael Dwyer)
An American Airlines jet takes off from Logan International Airport in Boston under cloudy skies. (AP/ Michael Dwyer)

Sometimes it’s tough duty being the bearer of bad news. I suspect that if I had hopped a plane to any one of several dozen airports last week I would look more like a piece of Swiss cheese than a messenger. Why? Because my report, “Oops, I Lost the Airport,” published on the Center for American Progress website last Wednesday, generated howls of anger and disbelief from airport managers across the country. The report examined how the Federal Aviation Administration might cope with the 9 percent across-the-board cut required to take place in January by legislation passed by Congress a year ago, suggesting that closing the control towers in the hundred smallest airports in which the FAA operates would be less disruptive than attempting to scale back air traffic control on a systemwide basis.

Rick Piccolo ,who runs the Sarasota Bradenton Airport, told The Bradenton Herald that the report was “alarmist” and said, "I’d be very surprised if they closed the airport and did away with air traffic control. This is one person’s belief of what could happen. It is just one possibility of a million possibilities depending on what happens.” Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Airport Director Barry Centini told The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader that he found the report, “Incredulous. I don’t see it happening.” And James Loomis at the Lubbock, Texas airport was even less kind. Interviewed on KCBD-TV he said, "People who write stuff like this try to push. They’re pushing their agenda when they’re doing this. That’s what this scare tactic is all about. We’re not going to lose air service in Lubbock, Texas.”

But all of these gentlemen are represented in Washington by the American Association of Airport Executives, which seems to have an entirely different take on the problem. Todd Hauptli, the senior executive vice president of the association, told The Scranton Times-Tribune:

"The FAA has four buckets of money: the airport improvement program, the facilities and equipment account, the research and engineering development account and the operations account… only the operations account – which funds all employee salaries – contains enough funds to make a difference, if such a budget reduction was deemed necessary…No one knows what is going to happen, but Scott Lilly’s proposal is absolutely a possibility."

My analysis of how the FAA might proceed with this was more of a warning than a proposal.  But what would an alternative approach look like? Jim Dyer, my former Republican counterpart on the House Appropriations Committee, and I suggested what might be called Plan B in a Washington Post opinion piece four months ago. Instead of shuttering the smaller towers, the FAA could reduce flights nationwide and preserve service at all existing airports. 

There are currently about 70,000 flights per day monitored by the FAA controllers. The number of controllers who must be cut is 12 percent rather than only 9 percent because Congress mandated that these cuts begin on January 2, a quarter of the way through the fiscal year. But if you randomly cut back the number of takeoffs and landings by 12 percent you would not necessarily reduce the number of controllers required to run the system unless you reduce the time that planes can be in the air.

Between January 2 and September 30 of next year, the period in which the reduction at FAA and other agencies must occur, there are 272 days. If you shut down the entire system for 33 days you could furlough all controllers that would have worked on each of those days and achieve the required 12 percent savings. If you shut airports one day each week, say Friday, for 33 or the 39 weeks in that time period you would have brought spending down to the levels mandated in the new law. 

Of course that would be highly inconvenient. Eliminating the 70,000 flights that would have otherwise taken place on each of those 33 days would force about 66 million passengers to seek other arrangements. Airports and passenger planes would be packed to overflowing on the days before and after a closed day. Parts needed for repairs or “just-in-time” manufacturing would be delayed. Literally hundreds of thousands of business meetings would be cancelled.

Shutting the towers at smaller airports, as my earlier report guessed might be the course that the FAA would follow would actually be less disruptive. It would affect about one-third as many passengers even if all commercial passenger flights were cancelled. And as Jim Loomis of the Lubbock airport points out, smaller airports with less crowded skies could possibly maintain some commercial service even without air traffic control. “If that tower closed, there would be a way to get airplanes in and out of this airport. Period," Loomis told KCBD-TV.

Of course, the decision on the destinations where scheduled passenger service will be provided rests with the airline carriers and their insurers. It is they not the airports that are the likely target of the massive lawsuits that could result from a mid-air collision or a missed runway. But it is also likely that many smaller airports could maintain at least some share of their service without controllers and so the burden on those who fly from smaller airports would be lighter than I suggested.

But neither of these is a good choice. Both are, as one airport manager put it, absurd—and that is my point. 

But what still seems to be missing in this story is a realization by some airport managers and the flying public that just because something is absurd doesn’t mean that it won’t happen, particularly given the events in the nation’s capital over the past year. Any Congress that would push the nation to within hours of insolvency as this Congress did last summer is capable of anything.  Currently there is no sign of movement on this issue what so ever.

In fact, there is every reason to expect that no movement should be expected. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee, has introduced legislation to block the implementation of sequestration at the Defense Department—giving a clear signal that he and his party are ready to let sequestration at the FAA and other domestic agencies go forward. 

Further, the House Legislative Calendar posted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) shows that there is very little time left even if members decided that the cuts I have outlined are bad ideas. The Cantor calendar shows that there will be only 13 legislative days left House goes home for the fall elections. And further still, the agreement announced prior to Congress leaving for the August legislative recess indicates that the one piece of legislation that might have been used to stop sequestration, the so-called continuing resolution, will contain no amendments.

Unless that decision is revisited it leaves all hope of any alternative to the lame duck legislative session following the election. That is a pretty thin reed and offers communities like Sarasota, Scranton, and Lubbock considerably less hope of escaping such cuts than they deserve. 

If Congress fails the FAA may be able find a somewhat less destructive alternative than either of the two scenarios I have laid out. I certainly hope so. But even so, the consequences of failure will still be very painful. No matter how you cut it, a 9 percent, or $1.35 billion, cut in the FAA budget is a lot of money. If you stacked $100 bills on top of each other you would need a pile more than 4,000 feet high, or 8 times the height of the Washington Monumen,t to replace a cut of that size. 

No matter how such a cut is levied it will heavily impact aviation in this country and people who want to avoid such a cut need to get to work rather than continue believing that their little piece of the universe is too important to be impacted by the budget impasse in Washington.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow