Sequester is upon us, and still few details

March 4, 2013

More than a day has passed since the sequester took effect and we still have few details about precisely what that means for general aviation. Unfortunately, even the people who make those decisions still aren’t entirely clear on what happens now.

What we can say for certain is that if full sequestration takes effect there will be cuts to services and it will take weeks to determine the exact impact. In the meantime, those cuts are a moving target, so be sure to stay tuned to get the latest information affecting your flying.

The FAA and Department of Transportation have issued various lists of items to be slashed, including control towers, navaids, and staff. But some of those lists disagree, and we have yet to see a comprehensive sequestration plan and timetable.

We do know that the FAA has selected 189 towers to close—most of them by April 1. It seems astounding that in the 31-year history of the contract tower program, the FAA has closed only three towers. Now the agency plans to close 189, most in a single day. Another 60 towers will lose their night shifts.

Will the FAA furlough all 47,000 of its workers, implement a hiring freeze, or find other ways to cut staffing costs? Will we see huge delays on the airlines?

We seem to learn more each day, but much remains unresolved. Last week two members of our AOPA government affairs team and folks from a few other aviation groups met with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, as well as David Grizzle, COO of the FAA Air Traffic Organization, and John Porcari, deputy transportation secretary. During the talks Huerta and company added a few more items to the closure list, including some navaids. For example, if any of the nearly 1,000 VORs nationwide goes down, as they frequently do, they won’t be fixed unless they are part of a skeletal system of navaids the FAA has identified. Be sure to check notams.

In that same meeting the federal officials told us that some activities related to NextGen would be postponed, but they didn’t say which ones.

Because of this lack of clarity, AOPA government affairs staff continues to meet with FAA leaders to stress the importance of maintaining vital safety of flight services for general aviation, including preflight services and the FAA DUAT System program. Our government affairs team has also requested more transparency in the FAA's decision-making process as the agency looks for budget cuts.

In the meantime, I think it’s important to bring some practical information to this situation. Here is what we can say with confidence:

  • Airports will remain open.
  • Many GA flights can and will proceed as normal, even if some towers are closed.

Those of you who fly and require the assistance of air traffic controllers may be the first to feel the consequences of sequestration.

Controllers at towers and en route facilities help pilots avoid trouble every day—something most of us know from first-hand experience. And that’s where sequestration may really hit hard.

The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that these cuts will take weeks to fully materialize. FAA furloughs and tower closures won’t start until April. That gives policymakers a few more weeks to find answers.

In the meantime, be alert for changes affecting your flight plans, and let us know if you experience any problems associated with sequestration cuts. We’ll keep working with Congress, the FAA, DOT, and others to find the best solutions for GA pilots, and we’ll keep you in the loop.