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April 30, 2013

The FAA fiasco

(Continued)

The FAA should be able to manage with less. Its operations budget has doubled since 1996.

The agency got along just fine in 2007, even though it had fewer controllers than today and less money, while handling more air traffic. Even with sequestration, the FAA overall has slightly more funding than under President Barack Obama's 2013 budget request.

In 1986, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings automatic deficit-reduction law, the model for today's sequestration, went into effect, mandating a cut of more than 4 percent at the FAA.

Yet no controllers were furloughed.

In past budget showdowns, air traffic controllers have been considered essential employees.

But Huerta claims sequestration gives him no wiggle room. Asked by Republican Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky in a recent congressional hearing if he had requested any additional flexibility from Congress, he replied, "No."

The Obama administration is extremely creative in finding the flexibility it needs to implement Obamacare or to ignore the nation's immigration laws. When it comes to avoiding the enormous economic costs of increased delays at airports, though, it is helpless before the strict letter of the law.

Actually, its interpretation of the law is almost certainly wrong. In separate letters to Delta, both Paul Clement and Seth Waxman, former solicitors general in the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, respectively, conclude that although limited, "the FAA retains a degree of flexibility" (in the words of the Clement letter).

That the administration didn't exploit that flexibility to the hilt — or failing that, seek more from Congress — is a travesty.

The airline industry has been screaming bloody murder about the effect of willy-nilly air traffic controller furloughs for months and sued to try to get a better plan out of the FAA. The head of the Air Line Pilots Association, Lee Moak, believes that "they're using the air system as a political football."

If there were justice in the world, Michael Huerta would be fired and his boss, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, impeached.

Short of that, Congress should act without delay to free air travelers from the grip of the Washington Monument strategy.

(c) 2013 by King Features Syndicate

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