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Commentary

April 30, 2013

The FAA fiasco

The air traffic controller furloughs are the White House tours of the sky.

From time immemorial, a government that doesn't want to tighten its fiscal belt finds high-profile ways to inconvenience the public to try to turn it against spending cuts.

In keeping with this so-called Washington Monument strategy, the White House canceled tours in the immediate aftermath of sequestration.

In an escalation, the Federal Aviation Administration has furloughed air traffic controllers, causing widespread flight delays.

Somehow, the Obama administration managed to find the federal employees perhaps most essential to the nation's transportation and commerce, and send them home. It found a way to make one of the most aggravating aspects of modern American life — air travel — more aggravating.

In Washington, incompetence can never be entirely discounted, and certainly the FAA did a poor job preparing for sequestration. But the administration and Democrats saw political opportunity in the debacle.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rushed to the Senate floor as the furloughs began to say that, "In airports across the country, millions of Americans will get their first taste of the pain of sequestration." He then plugged for a budgetary gimmick to cancel most of sequestration, so spending can resume as usual. Reid knows the script of the Washington Monument strategy very well. The head of the FAA, Michael Huerta, had to find $600 million in cuts in an agency with a $15 billion budget within a Transportation Department with a $70 billion budget.

Only 15,000 of the FAA's 47,000 employees are air traffic controllers. Yet he is furloughing controllers such that on some days more than 1,000 flights have been delayed.

The furloughs hit all airports equally. As far as the FAA is concerned, the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center, with more than 8,000 takeoffs and landings a day, is just the same as Waterloo Regional Airport in Iowa, with fewer than 80.

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