Last night, a unanimous US Senate voted to allow the FAA to transfer money between accounts in order to end the furloughs of air traffic controllers. The House is expected to follow sometime today, and there is no reason to expect the president not to sign the bill.
Of course I would prefer to see airports operating without delays, but these delays are the result of an administration which is transparently trying to make the "sequester" as painful as possible to the public. And the furloughs which are causing the delays seem utterly unjustified based on the FAA's budget.
It's hard not to feel that Congress' actions are effectively rewarding the administration's spitefulness.
As Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) noted yesterday, the FAA's budget is larger now, after the sequester, than in President Obama's budget request for the agency.
The Wall Street Journal reported letters from FAA employees to Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) claiming what we all believe anyway, that the furloughs are intended only to cause pain to the traveling public: "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.'"
In a letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Coburn lays out some devastating critiques:
Over the last few days, FAA engaged in a full blown media rollout for furlough-related flight delays, pitching stories to the press and even putting up an interactive online tool to generate unnecessary hype surrounding the flight delays....Now it appears that the FAA is doing its best to ensure that sequestration is the scapegoat for every flight delay for the rest of the year.
FAA points to its personnel-intensive budget as the reason it must furlough all of its employees. This does not explain, however, why the 15,000 air traffic controllers must make up an equal part of the agency's furloughs. FAA has 32,000 employees that are not air traffic controllers.
The FAA employs a variety of lawyers, public affairs specialists, speechwriters, administrative staff, congressional affairs staff, community planners, management and program assistants, and other employees that aren't immediately critical to FAA's mission...
There is no reason why a community planner or public relations specialist cannot undergo an additional furlough day every two weeks to offset the furlough day for an air traffic controller.
Coburn's points are all on target, and I particularly enjoyed the none-too-subtle implication that perhaps Barack Obama should enjoy a few furlough days so that air traffic controllers can stay on the job.
But here's my problem with today's likely action: The FAA will say "see, we need all the money, and we can't tolerate any sequester (or non-sequester) budget cuts." Big-spenders in Congress will say "we have to undo the sequester for the FAA." Then every other agency will try to find a way to replicate what the FAA did, whether it's DHS furloughing border patrol agents or HHS furloughing food safety inspectors (not that we need them, but the public might think we do.)
Instead of just allowing FAA to transfer money between accounts without (on a year-over-year basis) cutting costs, Congress should demand that the FAA put together a plan within 60 days to cut the agency's budget by five percent without impacting air traffic convenience or safety. This does not mean that the agency can't reduce the number of controllers or manned towers, as there is likely bloat in that work force just as in every other. Furthermore, my understanding from friends who are civil aviation pilots is that there is essentially zero safety difference between a small airport whose traffic is controlled locally and one which is controlled remotely. The idea that closing towers at airports which get one or two flights a day is a big safety risk is massively overstated.
So while I'm happy to learn that passenger convenience (such as it is) will likely soon be restored, I fear that Congress will be seen as caving in to a petulant bureaucracy which was willing to waste millions of valuable hours and millions of valuable dollars of the traveling public just to defend against a single-digit reduction in an already bloated budget.
At the very least, Congress should make sure to tell the FAA that today's legislation does not imply any backtracking on sequestration, and that if FAA causes further inconvenience to the traveling public, Congress will look to strip the air traffic control function entirely out of that agency, and perhaps privatize it as Peter Ferrara wisely suggested on these pages earlier this week.