Congress Moves to End Air Traffic Crisis

April 26, 2013

Late in the day on April 25th, the US Senate unanimously passed legislation that would end the FAA controller furloughs and restore the nation’s air traffic control system to normal, or close to normal operation. The measure permits the shifting of over $200 million from elsewhere in the Federal budget to cover the required funding. The “Dependable Air Service Act” now moves to the US House of Representatives, where it is expected to be taken up as soon as Friday.

This should put a quick end to the delays and cancellations that have been plaguing the country’s airports since last weekend. According to the FAA, roughly a thousand commercial flights each day were in some way affected by the sequester-induced furloughs, with many delays lasting several hours.

I saw it first hand:

When I landed in Los Angeles on Sunday evening, the terminal had the look and feel you’d expect during a snowstorm or hurricane: long, sullen faces, unusually heavy crowds, agents rushing around in an obvious state of fluster. The departure screens were blotched with red: CANCELED, CANCELED, CANCELED.

The following afternoon, my outbound departure was delayed for more than an hour. When I approached the podium for a look at the preflight paperwork, the agent handed me a printout: GROUND DELAY DUE TO FAA STAFFING SHORTAGE.

That Congress is finally acting to end the crisis is certainly welcome news. But the whole thing was unacceptable to begin with. The traveling public was caught up in a political squabble. Passengers had become pawns, basically, in a game of stalemate.

The airlines, too, were caught in the middle. Industry leaders were livid, and who can blame them: the trickle-down effects of a single canceled flight can wind up costing a carrier hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What a peculiarly American episode of incompetence and irresponsibility: I can’t imagine such a thing happening in Europe or Asia, where governments are quick to recognize how vital commercial air travel is to their economies. Our leaders don’t seem to understand, or don’t seem to care, how much the country stands to lose through long delays and cancellations: the tens of millions of daily dollars in lost productivity and wasted time.

Or else they knew exactly how much. Some have suggested the furloughs were a deliberate and cynical attempt to inflict as much pain as possible on the traveling public in order to guarantee FAA funding. Let’s leave that, and the subject of whether or not the FAA’s budget and ATC payroll are bloated and inefficient, for another time.

Regardless, this was just another depressing example of America’s long slide into infrastructural obsolescence, brought on by a government so mired in absurd partisan gridlock that the country’s best interests are no longer important. Our roads, bridges, railways and public buildings are falling apart. And compare for a moment the airports in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles with those of Seoul, Hong Kong, Munich or Singapore.

You mean to tell me that the government couldn’t reallocate a tiny fraction of the mandated cuts — less than two percent by some estimates — to keep something as critical as our air transport system running at a normal pace?

Earlier this year, Congress intervened to prevent the furlough of USDA meat inspectors, allocating $55 million from elsewhere in the budget. Last week, Airlines for America (A4A), the Regional Airlines Association (RAA), and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) jointly filed for an Emergency Motion against the Department of Transportation and FAA, asking that the U.S. Court of Appeals issue an emergency stay to prevent implementation of the cuts pending a full review.

The motion was denied on April 19th, and millions of passengers paid the price.

And how this all came to be is something that I, and many others, don’t quite understand. The FAA is funded directly by user — i.e. passenger — fees. Airline tickets are more heavily taxed than almost any other product in the US economy, and it’s those taxes and fees, not the general treasury, that keep the air traffic control system up and running. Apparently that money was available all along, but the way the sequester was worded, it couldn’t be used as intended.

Furloughed controllers will be back to work shortly. Delays will likely linger, however, at least for a few days. Check with your airline before heading to the airport. There’s also information on the FAA’s website.

And bear in mind that the causes of a particular delay will be hard to pinpoint; they may or may not have anything to do with the controller cuts. The FAA says around 40 percent of delays in the past week were attributable to the furloughs, but I suspect that’s a soft number. “Normal” weather and traffic delays haven’t gone away, of course, and in many cases have been compounded by the staffing crisis. Flying out of LAX on Monday, the message we got from air traffic control referenced the personnel shortage specifically, but in many cases it was a mix of factors: the sequester, the weather, or perhaps both — or neither.

For instance, at La Guardia on Tuesday afternoon, dozens of flights were canceled (mostly regional jet departures), and delays were up to two hours long. But the weather, also, was terrible, with low ceilings and reduced visibility. To what extent the trouble could be blamed on staffing was impossible to determine.

It’ll be over soon, but what a shame all around. Airline on-time performance had been improving, too, with 84 percent of flights landing within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival time.



Photo composite by the author.

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33 Responses to “Congress Moves to End Air Traffic Crisis”
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  1. […] Click HERE to read about it on […]

  2. Speed says:

    Contract Towers to Remain Open

    The Department of Transportation announced today that the 149 contracted air traffic control towers previously slated for closure under sequestration will remain operational through September 30, 2013 – the end of fiscal year. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that the recently passed Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 enables the FAA to end air traffic controller furloughs and fund contract towers.

  3. UncleStu says:

    If the trade group that represents the private contractors says something then it must be true.

    I love my corporate masters, and wait impatiently for them to replace the entire government.

    (In case anyone here missed it, that was sarcasm, or in simpler terms – I didn’t really mean it.)

  4. Chad H says:

    Remember also Patrick that in some parts of the world (the UK comes immediately to mind), Air Traffic Control is outsourced/privatised (in the UK, NATS, who run ATC in most of the country is 51% privately held).

    Whilst I’m a privitisation skeptic, if ATC was outsourced/privatised then in this sort of situation it could act as a buffer to political games…

    As the staff wouldn’t be government employees, they wouldn’t be able to be furloughed;

    The existence of a long term franchise agreement to provide ATC services would prevent short term budget cuts.

    Of course, there are huge problems with privitisation in general, but it would stop the skies being caught in political games.

    • Rod says:

      Well, Chad, you can’t privatize everything on the off-chance that political games will be played with it. The Republicans have the overt intention of undermining the entire federal government (bar the Pentagon, until they figure out a way of privatizing that too — busy minds are working on it, rest assured).
      As pointed out above, people just have to elect serious, responsible representatives is all.

      The Swiss, the twits, privatized their ATC, and two airplanes promptly collided ( A privatized public service means that somebody is making money on it; and will tirelessly look for ways of making more money. It ain’t healthy.

      • Speed says:

        The US has (had?) 251 airport control towers operated by outside contractors.
        The primary advantages of this program are enhanced safety, improved ATC services and significant VFR ATC cost savings to FAA. A new DOT Inspector General audit of the FAA Contract Tower Program, released Nov. 5, 2012, concluded that FAA contract towers continue to provide cost-effective and safe air traffic control services and operate at a lower cost than similar FAA-operated towers.
        As part of the “sequester”, 149 of these will be de-funded.

  5. Vinny the censored says:

    I actually like Patrick’s presentation of the middle finger all Americans (not only passengers)are getting from Congress.

  6. Tod Davis says:

    Great job in re writing the piece with the update on the situation

  7. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    The problem lies not in Washington or our politicians. As Josef Heller put it, “In democracy, you get the goverment you deserve. Alternately you deserve the government you got.” Perhaps H.L. Mencken made the point more strongly with, “People deserve the government they get, and they deserve to get it good and hard.”

    *WE* created this problem. We have a society where 46% of the public believes in Creationism over evolution. A third of Americans don’t believe man is affecting Earth’s climate. A third believes in astrology. Despite having the lowest tax rates in the industrial world, 40% of us believe our taxes are too high. Some twenty percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim and more believe he wasn’t born in America. Almost half of Americans don’t believe in vaccines.

    We have allowed ourselves to be over run with nonsense and foolishness. We worry about pocket knives on planes, but not about public health. We worry about gun rights, while more Americans die due to gun violence in one year than have been killed by terrorists in the last hundred. We spent more on our military than the rest of the world combined, but believe we aren’t safe. We kill more people with the death penalty than any other country in the world, now even passing China.

    I have friends, good friends, who believe such irrational nonsense as the moon landing was fake and Kennedy was killed by the CIA. How can we not expect Washington not to be a reflection of all this hokum and poppycock.

    You want things to change, Mr. Smith, realize we need to look at ourselves.

    • Speed says:

      Fact Check …
      “The United States will hold the dubious distinction starting on Sunday of having the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate after Japan’s drops to 38.01 percent, setting the stage for much political posturing but probably little tax reform.”

      The World Bank …
      US: 46.7%
      UK: 35.5%
      Denmark: 27.7%
      Norway: 41.6%

    • Mark says:

      “I have friends, good friends, who believe such irrational nonsense as the moon landing was fake and Kennedy was killed by the CIA.”

      The moon landing was fake hoax is incredibly stupid. You can see the landing sites with a good telescope.

      However, the fact that Kennedy was killed by the CIA is extremely well documented, although inconvenient to discuss. It is also a fact that Robert Kennedy understood this is what happened. Shortly after November 22, 1963, he sent a family friend to Moscow to tell Krushchev that they knew the Russians had nothing to do with the crime and it was the militarist right wing that was behind it. This was buried for decades and was only revealed after the Soviet archives were opened up in the 1990s. Read “One Hell of a Gamble” by Nixon center scholar Timothy Naftali for this (although he couldn’t understand why RFK would say this).

      Part of the political control of the US public is to mix together nonsense claims with factual claims and dismiss them equally.

  8. Speed says:

    Jackson, Theall Street Journal doesn’t agree …

    “The White House claims the sequester applies to the budget category known as “projects, programs and activities” and thus it lacks flexibility. Not so: This is a political pose to make the sequester more disruptive. Legally speaking, the sequester applies at a more general level known as “accounts.” The air traffic account includes 15,000 controllers out of 31,000 employees. The White House could keep the controllers on duty simply by allocating more furlough days to these other non-essential workers.”

    • unterrified says:

      “The Wall Street Journal doesn’t agree” is a pretty good indication that the opinion is perceptive and accurate. Even right-wing energy executives (yes, I know some) laugh at it’s juvenile editorials.

  9. Bob Ball says:

    Well,, I’d guess most members of Congress fly home to their districts. Maybe the experience will make them smarter.

  10. Vinny the censored says:

    I keep thinking of that really, really old (1988) L.A. Law episode, “Romancing the Drone.” You know, the one with trains running on time.

  11. Jackson says:

    Wonky and long, but this post explains why the FAA can’t just take money out of some less-important programs and keep full funding for controllers:

    The short version is that the sequester law excluded some programs from the spending cuts, so that the cuts have to fall on other, non-protected programs.

  12. Joe E says:

    this sad state of affairs will go on until Jan 2017 when a new non-minority person will inhabit the White House. At that point, the GOP legislators will compromise to get the business of the nation in order.


    • Avery Greynold says:

      I am sorry to feed a Troll, but please leave your bigotry to those blogs who appeal to your kind.

      • Rod says:

        Gosh, Avery, don’t they have sarcasm on your planet? Unless I’m badly mistaken, Joe was availing himself of that fine old device irony. The GOP have spent the past four+ years doing their damndest to make the US federal government fails in absolutely everything. Why? You know why.
        Now they’re gawping in dismayed disbelief at a second Obama term.
        Read between the lines.

  13. Maxim says:

    This is only roughly a 5% cut to FAA. Wait until we have to actually cut costs. Any business which cant cut just 5% to survive while still delivering a service for a customer will be bankrupt shortly. Lets all hope that this logic does not apply to government as well or we will not even get past the ID check in the security line.

    • Avery Greynold says:

      Maxim writes: “Any business which cant cut just 5% to survive while still delivering a service for a customer will be bankrupt shortly.” Interesting view of how during this recession, all (good) businesses spend at least 5 percent of their budgets on needless waste, and could easily be cut, but for some they choose not to.

  14. Speed says:

    The federal government spent $2.7 trillion five years ago. This year, after the 2.4% sequestration “cut” it will spend $3.5 trillion. The only “cut” is in the rate of growth, not the dollars borrowed and spent.

    In some cases, the cuts appear to have been made as painful and headline-grabbing as possible instead of targeting wasteful and unnecessary spending.

    • Bill Goffe says:

      True about 5 years ago, but since early 2010 federal expenditures have been flat and have been falling in both inflation adjusted terms and as a share of GDP since then. See . Rather far afield from the point about the sequester, but needed for informed public debate.

      • Speed says:

        We can argue about US Federal Spending until the cows come home and pick numbers that favor one point of view or another. I’ll simply point you to the Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits (-): 1789-2018.
        (Table 1.1)

        We’re spending a lot of money and the general trend is up, has been up and is projected to continue up according to the 2013-2018 estimates. The historical numbers have been lower every year except 2011 and we have no history of travel delays due to lack of FAA funding.

  15. This is one of those things that shouldn’t have happened.

    The idea behind the sequester was to set a deadline for the Republicans and Democrats to agree, in the knowledge that if they didn’t come to an agreement, and let the sequester kick in, they’d watch the entire country go to rack and ruin.

    As neither party wants to wreck the USA, the result should have been some brinkmanship and a last-minute agreement. Instead, no agreement was reached, and you’re seeing the effects.

    • Andrew Sullivan says:

      But it isn’t true that neither party wants to wreck the USA. The party that is all about cuts all the time no matter what does, in fact, want to wreck the USA. They don’t believe in having a government that serves the citizenry, because if the citizenry can be convinced that every single thing is the government’s fault, then the government will gradually wither. This doctrine goes by the name “starve the beast”, and it is working just fine. It’s wrong, stupid, short-sighted, and evil, but it’s working as designed.

      • UncleStu says:

        Right on every point, and to make it better you didn’t even indulge in false equivalence “they all do it” nonsense.

        Congtaulations and thank you.

      • UncleStu says:

        A question, please. Are you the famous Andrew Sullivan, blogger, journalist person, or just an ordinary :)) Andrew Sullivan?

  16. Elizabeth Matheson says:

    I hope this doesn’t last too long. A few days of it will hopefully wake up some folks in charge of the purse strings. If not, like you said, it will financially devastate the airlines and create more economic issues for our country.

    I wonder what will happen if there are lengthy delays on the tarmac. Will the FAA fine airlines that can’t get planes off the ground because of short staffing? Maybe the answer will be not to board the planes and just let people pile up on top of each other at the gates in order to avoid the fines.

    I’m flying to IAD from DFW in a couple of weeks, and I can’t wait to see what happens.