Was the Obama Administration’s Furlough of Air Traffic Controllers Necessary?

By Austin Hill | May 16, 2013

Ray LaHood

In the midst of the federal “sequester” spending cuts last month, was the Obama Administration’s furlough of air traffic controllers really necessary? Some politicians insist that they were, but here are four facts that lead to a resounding “NO.”

Fact #1: The furloughing of air traffic controllers was gradually phased-in, starting with a mere verbal threat and evolving to a major metropolitan hassle – In early February, 2013 – roughly seven weeks after the sequester funding cuts were supposed to have occurred had it not been for the stop-gap “American Taxpayer Relief Act” of last December and about seven weeks before the cuts actually became apparent – the FAA published a list of several hundred small, mostly rural airports that could experience a reduction in staffing. At that time the agency offered assurances that larger metropolitan airports would likely be spared from the funding cuts.

Near the end of February, however, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood changed the story, announcing at a White House Press Conference on February 22nd and in an MSNBC TV interview on February 25th that there would be “a slowdown and delays” at some larger airports.

The real game-changer came in the month of April. While staffing cuts that had happened at small airports during the month of March had mostly escaped national attention, on Sunday April 21st the FAA issued alerts claiming that flight delays were finally arriving at airports big and small, all across the country.

Both delays and cancellations would probably happen nationwide, the FAA warned that weekend. An estimated 1 in 3 passengers would probably be impacted, and airports in the New York City area were to be the most heavily hit. The next morning, Monday April 22nd, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) had a press conference ready to go at La Guardia Airport reminding Americans that the problem was caused by the failures of congressional Republicans. The mere threat of air traffic controller cuts didn’t grab headlines, nor did the cuts at small town airports. But once the nation’s largest airports had been impacted, sequester seemingly became “top of mind” for the nation.

Fact #2: After the furloughs and flight delays began, the FAA dodged legal arguments that might have ended them – A coalition of airlines and pilots’ groups – including Airlines for America (A4A), Air Line Pilots Association, (ALPA) and the Regional Airline Association (RAA), sued the Department of Transportation to try and stop the continued furlough of the air traffic controllers. Attorneys for the group argued that, based on language in the “U.S. Antideficiency Act,” the DOT could declare air traffic controllers to be “essential employees” and keep them on the job despite the funding cuts.

Media pundits were quick to pounce and claim that the coalition was using “specious” legal reasoning. The Washington Post reported that they couldn’t find any “government officials, Republican congressional members or legal experts” that agreed with the argument. Yet, rather than rejecting the argument out of hand, lawyers from the DOT simply chose to not respond to the coalition, thereby prolonging the staffing cuts in air traffic control towers.

Fact #3: Obama’s DOT was not required to furlough the air traffic controllers, they chose to – The law authorizing sequester stipulated that government spending cuts had to be distributed equally across the various government agencies. Yet the dominant media has ignored the fact that on April 16th a week before the major flight delays began, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that he did, indeed, have flexibility and discretion over how the funding cuts were administered. He claimed at the time that he had “exhausted all his options” before furloughing the air traffic controllers, but nonetheless admitted that he exercised his own discretion in the matter.

Fact #4: The FAA faced furloughs in 2011, but still kept air traffic controllers on the jobIn July of 2011 when the President and the Congress were at an impasse over creating a budget and lifting the federal debt ceiling, funding for the FAA and the collection of federal airline ticket taxes (user fees) were both allowed to lapse. For a period of time there was a moratorium on the collection of a 7.5% tax on the base ticket price; a domestic “segment tax” of $3.70 per person per segment (a “segment” being defined as a single takeoff and single landing); a 6.25% tax on the amount paid for transporting property by air; excess baggage fees; and “passenger facilities charges.”

In response, the FAA furloughed 4,000 employees – but air traffic controllers remained. “While this lapse in FAA’s authorization affects thousands of public and private sector jobs, it is important to note that the safety of the flying public will not be compromised,” the agency’s website announced on July 23rd of that year (the memo remains posted today).

Austin Hill is an author and host of Austin Hill’s Big World of Small Business, a syndicated talk show about small business ownership and entrepreneurship. He is co-author of The Virtues Of Capitalism: A Moral Case For Free Markets, author of White House Confidential and a frequent guest host discussing general issues for Washington, DC’s 105.9 FM WMAL Talk Radio. Mr. Hill is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.