The Delays Are Coming

The budget sequestration deadline came and went at the end of March and very few of the predicted dire consequences have happened. Yes, the military has been forced to end its air show participation, and the FAA is threatening to close many control towers, but the air traffic delays and other painful cuts in service just haven’t happened.

But we have been living in the eye of the storm. By Sunday the major impact of the sequestration budget cuts will begin to take hold.

The reason the world didn’t end on April 1 is that the government must give federal employees advance notice before any furlough. That notice period is up on Sunday. Beginning then FAA employees, including controllers, can expect to be furloughed at least one day every two weeks.

One day every two weeks is a 10 percent cut in a 10 workday pay period. Remove 10 percent of the controllers from any of the nation’s busiest facilities and there will be very noticeable delays. The major airline hub airports are actually scheduled beyond capacity at rush hours so take away at least 10 percent of capacity and you can imagine how the airplanes will stack up.

The actual impact will be more than 10 percent loss in capacity because the sequestration law requires the cuts to be uniform across the board. So 10 percent of the fully qualified controllers will be furloughed, not just 10 percent of the trainees. And each control position must be fully staffed which can require as many as three people or that position would be closed, or in trail separation extended dramatically.

There are estimates that the busiest airports could lose 40 percent, or even half of their capacity, during rush hour when the furloughs begin. If that doesn’t make sense to you, think of a freeway running at capacity. The cars are barely moving. If even a few percent more cars enter the roadway traffic stops totally.

The nation’s busiest airports and ATC Centers run at 100 percent of capacity during the peak periods. Any change that alters capacity ripples through the system, just like those few extra cars coming down the freeway ramp bring things to a halt. And unlike cars, airplanes can’t stop, or even slow down. The only solution to reduced capacity is to keep airplanes on the ground until there is capacity in the system to handle them.

This is stupid, you say. This is a political game. And you are right. The sequestration law was crafted to be so stupid, so disruptive, so inefficient and so just plain crazy that it would never be allowed to happen. Well, it turns out the government is capable of anything. And now we are about to see what a true across the board, no exceptions, furlough of controllers will do to capacity in the system at peak periods.

I don’t think the airlines and Congress understand, or believe, what the impact will be. There was so much crying wolf back in March, and then nothing happened because of the furlough delay, that few believe anything will happen starting on Sunday. But I believe.

Of course Congress can change all of this because it was Congress that passed the sequestration law in the first place. If the law were changed to allow agencies such as the FAA to move funds around and spend them where they are most urgent big delays would almost certainly be prevented. But that’s not how the law is written. The law as it stands was crafted to inflict maximum pain on the public, who in turn would retaliate against Congress and the administration demanding that they do something.

If the ATC system delays are as bad as I expect starting on Sunday I think the stupidity of sequestration will have the desired impact and the law will be changed to at least allow agencies to spend their reduced budgets in the most useful way. Stand by. And I plan to avoid the busy airspace on Sunday and next week.

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24 Responses to The Delays Are Coming

  1. Steve Leonard says:

    I hope you’re wrong, but you may well be correct about what’s coming. But one important clarification is in order: it’s not Congress, it’s Obama who is responsible for this. The sequester was his idea in the first place. In January, the House tried to pass legislation specifically authorizing the administration to allow agencies such as the FAA to move funds around and spend them where they are most urgent. Obama threatened to veto the bill, and Harry Reid refused to consider it, so it died.

    • Jeff Boatright says:

      And why did the president propose the sequester in the first place, Steve?

    • Craig says:

      So you’re saying Obama passed this law all by himself without the approval of congress? Wow! He is powerful!

      • Rodney says:

        It was proposed as a way to get the parties to talk about reducing the budget deficits. Unfortuneatley they couldn’t do that and now we have the current situation. The good news is people will, as they always have, adapt. They will change their schedules, change flying times, opt to travel by other means etc. The world will not stop because we cut some government spending. The real shame is that it came to this point and our government, both congress and the president, are so dysfunctional that they cannot work together for the people and country. Obama as president should be a mediator between the parties but instead is a “my way or the highway” politician more interested in what political points he can score than creating good policies and keeping the country spending within its means.

        • M. Smith says:

          And how would you characterize the Republican congress and the Tea Party? It’s easy to blame Obama but I don’t see anything but crisis mongering coming from the other side.

  2. Mike Busch says:

    Mac, spot on! The effects of the 10% furlough during rush hour will be highly nonlinear. All hell will break loose.

    And that’s a good thing.

    I am disappointed that you said you would be avoiding high-traffic airspace this weekend. Shame on you, Mac! We all need to do our part to make the delays as painful as they possibly can be, in order to get the attention of Congress. Two by fours are obviously not enough to get the attention of these bozos; we must use six by sixes. Every patriotic GA pilot should be flying into Class B airspace this weekend, and then perhaps inexplicably going NORDO or having a transponder failure.

    Just kidding. Or maybe half-kidding. Hehehe.

  3. Kayak Jack says:

    Quote from an old poster: “I love my country. It’s my government that I fear.”

  4. William McIntosh says:

    I’m afraid the public-outrage model that the Administration seems to be basing its governance on, in the absence of its own competence to govern, has been taken to the fising hole once too often, and now there are no fish.

    I live in El Paso, and the sequester is widely viewed here as not effecting our air operations too much, if at all. And the political landsacpe is not likely to be altered by Eastern delays and inconveniences, given that the original circumstances that led to the sequester was an unholy mix of cultural intolerance and negotiating incompetence, both on the part of the Administration.

    Having said the above, I still feel a great deal of empathy for the folks who will be delayed, and especially for the remaining controllers who will be under even greater stress to make the system work.

    General Aviation can help by trying to schedule trips at nonpeak hours.

    • If you think El Paso won’t be affected you may be in for a surprise, as the commercial aircraft that fly into your airport, at one time or another, have flown through the the east and you will see delays.

      • William McIntosh says:

        You’re right, George…I was being provincial and thinking about only our local General Aviation operations. Commercial airline operations will of course suffer…thanks for pointing that out

  5. Cary Alburn says:

    If only Congress and the President would be affected by sequester, it would be over in seconds. Imagine this scenario:
    AF 1: Air Force One, ready to push back and taxi, IFR to Wherever USA, we have our clearance.
    Andrews Ground: Air Force One, stand by, number 45 to push back.
    AF 1: But the President has to be at Wherever by 2 p.m.
    Grd: Sorry, One. FAA regulations apply to everyone. Expect push back in 24 hours.
    AF 1: But we’ll lose our clearance and he’ll be a day late.
    Grd: One, suggest you refile for a departure in 28 hours.
    AF 1: You said we’d push back in 24 hours.
    Grd: True, One, but it’ll take you 4 hours from push back to depart.
    AF 1: Why, it’s only a 10 minute taxi at most?
    Grd: Tower is on his lunch break, so things are stacking up–there’s no one in the cab to take over and clear anyone to take off, and the tower closes at 6 p.m.
    AF 1 pilot: Mr. President, we won’t be able to take off for another 24 hours; ground and tower are short-handed.
    Prez: Tell them it’s a national emergency.
    AF 1 pilot: That won’t work, Mr. President–they’re the FAA, and there’s no national emergency exception to FAA regulations.
    Prez: Tell them sequester will be over tomorrow.
    AF 1: Ground, the President says sequester will be over tomorrow.
    Grd: Roger, One, request push back then.
    AF 1 pilot: Mr. President, he says we’ll be cleared to push back when sequester is over.
    Prez: Get Harry Reid on the phone, now!

    Have a good day!

  6. Brian says:

    Steve is completely right. Sequester was of Obama’s design. It was so stupid that Congress felt this guy is an idiot and gave him what he asked for. Jeff and Craig need to understand the facts.

    • Craig says:

      Congress passed the bill, so they are responsible. Simple as that.

      “It’s not my fault! Yes, I did it, but it’s because someone else told me to do it!” I expect that kind of logic from my 5 year-old, but not from grown adults.

      • Rodney says:

        We are talking about politicians. Mentally they are probably not even the equivalent of a 5 year old.

  7. Craig H says:

    I just have the bad feeling that any solution here will be an excuse for more taxes.

    • Brian says:

      You are correct about creating excuses for more taxes. From my understanding, the budget through sequester was pushed back to 2009 levels. Planes were not falling out of the sky at FAA funding levels in 2009 and air traffic volumes are not that much different now. I do believe that some government employees will make decisions that will cause this to have a more dramatic effect in an effort to inflict pain on the public to help justify additional taxes, i.e. user fees.

  8. Steve says:

    Our Government is totally out of control folks. The Fed is printing 85 billion a month!
    How about cutting off the 2.2 billion Cell phone giveaway? That might pay a few salaries. If this madness doesn’t come to an end (by sequestration or otherwise) you won’t be able to fly anyway due to cost of fuel. The wheels are coming off and Nero keeps fiddling. Replace these guys next year and stop the violations of our Constitution.
    What’s it cost for Air Force One to fly to Hawaii? Then fly to the US then fly to Hawaii again in one week? Shut this abuse down.

  9. William J. David says:

    I have been flying professionally for over 39 years in little airplanes and big airplanes, I spend most of my time with ATC on the north east seaboard at the worlds busiest airports. This is how I feel about air traffic controllers,

    Air traffic controllers are overpaid.
    Air traffic controllers are underworked
    The FAA employes age discrimination in the practice of hiring that is illegal in the airlines.
    The mandatory retirement age of a controller at 56 years of age is a sham.
    Double dipping is a sham.
    The definition of a hot spot is where controllers make a lot of mistakes.
    The perception the public holds in regards to a controller’s responsibilities is false and distorted but, very firmly held.

    You have jumped to conclusions if you think I resent them for this, I don’t. I never argue with a controller, it solves nothing. I never “squeal,” on a controller when he/she screws up. I cover for them every time, they have covered for me just as many times. I can’t imagine working in their institutional atmosphere of compliance, to me it would be depressing. I think the ones at the busiest airports are the best. I know they don’t like the way things are run either. I enjoy working with them.

    I do however point my finger at the so called leaders in DC that run the show, too numerous to mention. They are the ones that promote, foster, and employ their political agenda within the system. In my opinion one of the best demonstration of this “leadership,” is when President Obama sacrificed a whopping 5% of his pay. An insult to me coming from a guy that won’t let you visit our White House because of lack of funds yet, will close down airspace and allow pilots to be entrapped in useless TFRs so he can fly his, or rather our, 747 down to Florida to golf with Tiger, or New York to be on the View. What a joke

    Personal income has plummeted in the private sector, especially in the cockpits for the very airplane the controller’s monitor. This has not happened to the folks in the tower. You never hear the word like, “pay cut,” in the discussion of government workers pay. You only hear layoff. I think this is because they all expect things to blow over. Mr. Obama’s 5% cut supports this, in my opinion.

    This sequester is political, so is the controllers job. No politician wants to cross them, especially when they (the politicians) are not willing to sacrifice themselves. Until they do, and I am sure they won’t, I hope the controllers continue to get pay raises, time off, and a retirement. I am sure the results of the sequester will have no effect on this. The only ones that will suffer are the ones paying for all of this.

  10. Marc says:

    The delays are unnecessary even with cuts, air traffic controllers are way overpaid compared to their international counterparts some making close to $200,000 a year. So a pay cut could fix the problem. Also air traffic controllers only work 4 hours a day the other 4 hours are breaks per union. What if they only took a 30 min break after every hour of work. The FAA struggles to cut $600 mill out of a $16 bill budget. They are simply holding the public hostage. Europe and Canada have privatized their Air Traffic Controll and the results are amazing. The FAA has been mismanaged for years and is still using the same technology from the 1940s. I think it’s time the debate shifts to privitizing the USA air traffic control system!

    “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers it can bribe the public with the publics money”

    • William J. David says:

      Great comment Mark, they never talk about pay cuts in government positions state, local, or federal. They also never talk about pension loss either, this is why all of this talk of sequester is hollow. Government employees and their spouses make up the largest special interest group in the country when it comes to voting power. They will always vote for more government. The President and other politicians know this so they would never bring forth legislation that would disagree with the majority. That is what is in a politician’s blood. I must make issue with your remark that foreign controller’s pay may be much higher than our US controllers. The average pay of a Spanish controller is $500,000, some make much more even though they have about 1/16th the traffic. http://www.aei-ideas.org/2011/05/i-want-to-be-a-spanish-air-traffic-controller/
      Check out Spain’s economic picture because that is where G/A is heading and our country is not far behind.

  11. Grer Miller says:

    Why is this topic a concern to EAA and it’s experimental aircraft builders and fliers? In other words, in this venue, who cares? We demonstrate we do not need the FAA, except for their center ATC. But not ATC in class A/B/C. And the more class Ds controllers that are shut down, the better.

    • William J. David says:

      Greg, this is how I would answer why care? The government, sate, local, and federal is kind of like a benign, inoperable tumor that keeps growing at a steady rate, it just keeps getting larger and there is nothing you can do about it. Your taxes are too high but I promise you they will be higher next year. They will always get higher, read my lips. They are using ATC to achieve a political objective. They will succeed eventually. As they become larger new departments are formed like the DHS. The DHS has a department that was formed to handle “security,” at big airports because that brings the most attention from the general public, creating and image that “they,” are accomplishing something. That department is the TSA. The thing is that this is just the beginning. Slowly but steadily they are expanding their control. G/A pilots have been locked up (see the glider pilot arrest), and harassed in the name of security. TFRs entrap innocent people all the time, a matter of routine. TSA inspects CFI log books for compliance with security endorsement.
      Look out the window Grer, they imposed martial law this month in Boston. Soon flying G/A will be like flying for fun in Spain. Check it out because it is coming to your airport soon.

  12. David Light says:

    I have to agree with Dan, the sequester is only a decrease in less than 5% of this year’s growth. All of the federal budgets should increase over last year, just not as much as they would like. They have to give up about 5% of their increase. You may have budget cuts but they are not the fault of the sequester but the administration. Don’t tell me 10%, that is not what the law says. It is also prorated for the rest of the year. The delays are the brainchild of the administration for political reasons.

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