News Column

US Air Industry Braces for a Coming Storm of Federal Budget Cuts

February 22, 2013


Budget Sequester

Getting through a security checkpoint could be much harder, and getting off an airplane, if it is an international arrival, could also be difficult because customs and border agents will work fewer hours.

Airlines and airports across the United States are preparing for the looming federal budget cuts as they would for a major storm, with large numbers of flights cancelled and passengers stranded.

But they face those cuts, widely known as the sequester, with much less certainty, because they do not know when the disruption will start, how severe it will be or how long it will last.

Getting through a security checkpoint could be much harder, and getting off an airplane, if it is an international arrival, could also be difficult because customs and border agents will work fewer hours.

And planes that push back from the gate may sit on the tarmac for longer, because the Federal Aviation Administration has pledged that if its ability to handle air traffic is reduced, it will maintain safety by accepting fewer airplanes into the system -- the same tactic it uses in bad weather or when facing other staffing shortages.

That means that in places where airplanes normally follow each other with a six- or seven-mile gap, they might be spaced by 10 or 20 miles, or up to 32 kilometers. And that will create serious backups on the ground.

"It's going to be like perpetual bad weather," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. "You're going to have to look at this as if you're going out knowing there's a storm."

The automatic budget cuts will begin taking effect on March 1, barring some unexpected last-minute agreement between the White House and Congress. They will be divided about evenly between the military and domestic programs and are expected to lead to thousands of government employees, from F.B.I. agents to teachers, being laid off or temporarily furloughed.

Complicating air travel further, Homeland Security officials have said that layoffs of security screeners at airports could lead to waits of up to four hours for screening at major airports. The Transportation Security Agency plans a hiring freeze beginning March 1 if the sequester takes place, and could furlough its 50,000 airport screeners for up to seven days, the officials have said.

And border crossings will be seriously affected by cutbacks affecting Customs and Border agents.

But just when the cuts will begin to bite in earnest is not clear. Some employees could be furloughed immediately.

But in the case of air traffic controllers, the union contract with the controllers requires that they be given 30 days' notice, and that notice cannot be given until the sequester starts, on March 1.

The sequester "will require indiscriminate spending reductions," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a letter to Barbara Mikulski, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Mr. LaHood said that most of the F.A.A.'s 47,000 employees would face a day of furlough per two-week pay period, meaning 10 percent of the work force would be staying home on any given day; applied to controllers, that could mean 1,500. In some areas, like New York, problems could arise even in advance of furloughs, if overtime budgets are cut.

So far the F.A.A. is saying very little about what it would do. The National Air Traffic Controllers Union is preparing a study correlating levels of furlough to reductions in the ability to handle traffic.

"Everyone is frustrated with the lack of specific information," said Deborah McElroy, president of the Airports Council International-North America. "Airports are looking at their contingency plans, but the difficulty is, I don't know what I'm planning for."

Many aviation executives were reluctant to be quoted by name for fear of appearing to take sides in the dispute in Congress, but many reflect frustration.

An executive of a major airline who is assigned to the New York area pointed out that the problem approaches as the price of gasoline is once again nearing $4 a gallon, or $1.05 a liter. And that could mean that few forms of travel will be very attractive in coming months.

Source: (C) 2013 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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