Federal sequestration impact on GA flight safety, operations

February 25, 2013

As most of you know, President Barack Obama and Congress are in the throes of debate over federal sequestration, an unusual legislative requirement that dictates across-the-board cuts of $85 billion in federal spending on March 1.

The cuts will take place automatically unless Congress acts to stop them. Setting aside the politics that have led us to this point, the impact on our ability to fly and operate our aircraft in the manner in which we are accustomed could be severely impacted if the sequester takes effect.

Our primary interest, as always, is maintaining the freedom of flight for AOPA members. But in this instance, we have another equally important concern: flight safety.

Arbitrary cuts to our aviation system could compromise safety and the efficiency of GA operations.

The purpose of this communication to AOPA members is to alert you to the possible impact of a government sequester on you as a pilot, aircraft owner, and AOPA member. We also want to tell you how your association has deployed its regulatory and government affairs specialists to affect the best outcome during this challenge and to mitigate its impact on GA.

On Feb. 22, the Department of Transportation and FAA wrote to AOPA and several other aviation organizations detailing the possible impact of the so-called sequestration spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect March 1.

The agencies said the letter was “just the beginning” of a dialog with stakeholders about how to “reduce the negative impact” of required cuts that are expected to reach $600 million for the rest of this fiscal year. The letter cited several measures that it would have to enact if a deal on sequestration wasn’t reached, including the closure of 60 airport control towers during midnight shifts, the shutdown of 238 towers completely at airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations per year, and a staff furlough.

However, there is considerable controversy regarding the FAA's proposed cuts, with numerous others suggesting that the FAA could make more selective cuts that would be less dramatic and damaging.

We hope to learn more about the FAA’s sequestration plans on Feb. 26 when AOPA will join with several other aviation associations in a sequestration meeting with top FAA officials. We have urged the FAA to provide a specific timetable for implementing the cuts announced at the end of last week. We of course will share any details on the cuts with our members at that time.

AOPA’s government specialists report to us that if sequestration takes hold, we will see a gradual reduction of services that may take weeks to become apparent, during which pressure would likely mount on Congress and the Obama administration to find a workable compromise.

We have spent the last few years building the largest and strongest GA Caucus in the House and Senate ever. AOPA is working today in Congress with this sizeable caucus, which has been very supportive of the system in which we operate. In our meetings on Capitol Hill, we have expressed the need to maintain essential services that are of vital use to our members, including air traffic control and the FAA products that provide weather, notam, and operational flight information, such as updated charts. Airmen certification and medical services are also a concern, and we are working with our colleagues within the FAA itself to make sure that the agency knows what you rely on most as AOPA members.

Standing in the shadow of the sequestration controversy is Obama’s budget, which will also come out in March. As before, it will most likely include a $100-per-flight user fee proposal. We expect the House to declare the president's budget dead on arrival, and then to enact its own budget bills (without user fees). They will send those to the Senate, where a budget has not been acted upon for years.

Thus, we are months away from knowing whether the administration will have the ability to advance its user fee proposal. If past is prologue, chances of its passage are not good. We will work to defeat it, as we have successfully done in the past.

In the meantime, we hope that a solution to the automatic sequester can be found by March 1. Until then, please stay tuned to AOPA’s website and newsletters for updates on our meetings with the FAA and Congress, and for further news on sequestration’s impact on aviation.