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February 27, 2013
By Dan Namowitz
Furloughs, shuttered control towers, slowed NextGen modernization programs, selective repairs of navigation aids, and a "steady ratcheting down" of FAA operations will become the norm if mandatory budget cuts take effect March 1 under sequestration, said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a briefing of aviation industry representatives.
In a significant departure from cutback scenarios arising from past budget deadlocks, the FAA would be unable to perform fiscal triage by moving money from one program budget to another to save key services.
AOPA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Melissa Rudinger and AOPA Vice President of Airspace and Modernization Heidi Williams attended the Feb. 26 briefing in Washington, D.C., where Huerta laid out the FAA’s “worst-case scenario” under sequestration. Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari, FAA Air Traffic Organization Chief Operating Officer J. David Grizzle, and other top FAA management also participated.
“If full sequestration goes into effect on March 1, the impact will not be immediate. Rather, it will occur as a steady ratcheting down of programs and processes,” said Rudinger. “But it was clear that the brunt of the burden would be borne by general aviation.” The officials “made it clear that they were open to discussion and input from industry on the proposed cuts and working locally to mitigate impacts of tower closures,” she said.
General aviation was likely to experience a disproportionate share of service reductions, but managers’ hands are tied on where to cut, the officials said, because the budget-reduction mandate requires percentage decreases across the board. They described the situation as “uncharted territory” for the agency.
Cuts would continue incrementally over 10 years if Congress and the Obama administration cannot agree by March 1 on a compromise to avoid the arbitrary $85 billion cuts in federal spending for the rest of this fiscal year.
GA’s disproportionate burden
Furloughs in the FAA’s 47,000-member workforce—which includes 15,000 air traffic controllers—would begin April 7 after a required notice period. Most employees would lose a day of work per pay period.
The disproportionate burden of service reductions would fall on general aviation as 189 control towers in the Contract Tower Program, mostly serving general aviation airports, gradually close. Another 49 federally funded control towers would be shut down. An additional 72 towers would see their operating schedules shrink, after Air Traffic Organization managers scoured budget lines for $375 million of the $600 million the FAA must trim agency-wide for Fiscal 2013.
Combined, the impact of the closures would amount to a 30-percent reduction in control tower service system-wide. With only six percent of scheduled air carrier flights expected to be affected, general aviation stands to shoulder a major burden of the service reductions.
Maintenance of system infrastructure would be drastically curtailed. Only VORs scheduled to remain in long-term operation as part of the Minimum Operating Network—the skeleton navaid framework of the future—would be repaired in the event of an outage. Repairs would take longer.
Other navaids—and the procedures associated with them—would remain unavailable after an outage, with their status made known to pilots through the notam system.
Flight service, operated by contractor Lockheed-Martin, and FAA-sponsored DUAT flight planning services would be spared immediate cuts, but remain vulnerable later.
Although unable to fill in more details about specific reductions, the transportation officials “pledged to continue to keep industry informed,” Rudinger said.
“All of this is worst-case scenario,” she said. “No one in the room was able to draw any conclusions on where we might end up. We will work to mitigate impacts where we can, but a legislative solution remains the focus of our advocacy.”
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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