Across general aviation, 'sequester' impacts loom

February 14, 2013

With a March deadline fast approaching for once-unthinkable automatic federal budget cuts under sequestration, AOPA and the general aviation community are sizing up the possible impact on everything from the FAA’s NextGen modernization initiative to the Contract Tower Program, and the day-to-day operation of air traffic control services and facilities.

Details are hard to come by--although some estimates have included a $160 million bite out of NextGen funding--but that has not prevented the industry from attempting to sketch out the look of air traffic services in a post-sequestration budget environment.

“This is a very difficult time as Congress works to reduce the deficit,” said Lorraine Howerton, AOPA vice president of legislative affairs. “We have been closely following the potential for sequestration and keeping our supporters in Congress informed of any adverse impacts to general aviation.”

Huerta issues a statement

The picture was filled in to some degree with a new statement from FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on the impact of sequestration.

“Without an agreement to avoid these budget cuts, the FAA will be forced to confront a budget reduction of approximately $627 million for this fiscal year,” he said.

Huerta said that all cost reduction options were “on the table, and we will take all reasonable measures to avoid proposing furloughs. However, given the magnitude of the shortfall we face, it is likely that significant federal employee furloughs and drastic reductions in services performed by contract personnel would be necessary.”

Most of the agency’s 47,000 employees would see furloughs of one day per pay period, and possibly two, until the current fiscal year ends in September. Staffing cutbacks would require reducing operational services to levels that could be managed safely, the administrator cautioned.

Airport development funding would not take an immediate hit, Huerta said, because “under current law, programs and projects funded under the Airport Improvement Program are exempt from sequestration and would continue to operate at current funding levels.”

2,000 controllers

Industry groups have worked for months to assess the impact of sequester, including any furloughs in the air traffic control ranks. Assuming cuts in FAA operational funding of almost 8.2 percent, the result could be “furloughing between 2,000 and 2,200 air traffic controllers, about 12 percent of the workforce,” said the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in a December 2012 report.

This would inevitably lead to a reduction in services, reduced capacity, and fewer flights,” it said.

Ripple effects from the cuts “would negatively impact airlines, pilots, flight attendants, private aviation, airport employees, passengers and the many businesses that depend on a vibrant aviation sector, which drives nearly 10 million jobs and contributes $1.3 trillion to the nation’s GDP,” NATCA said.

Contract Tower Program?

AOPA has been a strong supporter of the Contract Tower Program, which provides vital services at 249 airports that mostly serve general aviation. Last year AOPA joined with 11 other aviation organizations to urge full funding for the program in fiscal 2013--partly in a response to reports that the program had been targeted for cuts despite its cost-effective delivery of proven safety benefits.

And now? In its 2012 annual report, the American Association of Airport Executives warned of the impact of the across-the-board cuts on communities and businesses now reaping benefits of the program: “Without contract towers, certain communities could lose important businesses who rely on those towers. This is yet one more example of how local communities will feel the effects of sequestration cuts,” AAAE said.

Huerta, in his sequester-impact statement, warned that “drastic reductions” could hit the services provided by contract programs as well.

Farewell to airshows?

If it seems like it took an act of Congress to get that wonderful local airshow established at your airport, here’s an irony to ponder: Congressional inaction to avoid sequestration could be responsible for the show being canceled.

What do airshows and the federal budget have to do with one another?

A lot, unlikely as it seems.

That’s because the airshows that bring well-known military flight teams to town could become casualties of sequestration.

The sequester could touch off a domino effect of consequences for airshows, airports, and communities, says the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS).

ICAS explained to members that under the Budget Control Act of 2011, the Defense Department and all other federal agencies would be “forced to make dramatic cuts to non-essential spending. That includes ending the participation of the U.S. military in air shows around the country. And, without that participation, it’s not clear that the air show industry in the United States can survive.”

The organization points out that each year more than 300 airshows bring world-class entertainment and a major economic shot in the arm to many local communities. An estimated 11 million to 13 million people attend airshows each year, ICAS said.

Also, the shows provide an effective public-relations link between the armed forces and taxpayers, showcasing national defense capabilities while providing patriotic--and affordable--family entertainment in “a festival-like atmosphere,” ICAS said.

ICAS presented the implications of sequestration for the industry in the Feb. 7 edition of its publication Fast Facts .

With or without military participation, airshows benefit all of general aviation by bringing the public out to local airports, where they may start to learn about the industry’s role in their communities. Airshows often also become a motivator for young people to pursue aviation as a career path, a decision often sealed by taking a first airplane ride during a local aviation event.

In 2013, some 65 communities are scheduled to host appearances by the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds flight teams, ICAS said.