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.