By Kathleen Hennessey
Transportation chief says budget war may result in flight disruptions; others are skeptical
WASHINGTON —— The Obama administration issued a travel advisory Friday: Because of a budget standoff in Washington, flights will be delayed and South Florida’s smaller airports could see their control towers closed.
That was the message Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood delivered at the daily White House briefing, as he outlined the impact that across-the-board budget cuts would have on air travel, a drumbeat he acknowledged was aimed by the administration at Republicans in Congress.
More than 100 small air traffic control towers would be closed, 60 other towers may eliminate overnight shifts, and staffing at airports across the country would be cut back, delaying flights up to 90 minutes at peak times, LaHood said.
Florida air traffic towers that would be closed are Fort Lauderdale Executive, Opa-locka Executive, North Perry in Pembroke Pines, Boca Raton, Kissimmee Gateway and Orlando Executive. Others around the nation include Hartford-Brainard in Connecticut; Easton/Newnam in Easton, Md.; Frederick Municipal in Maryland and Martin State in Baltimore. Airports where overnight shifts might be canceled include Lehigh Valley in Allentown, Pa.; Norfolk and Roanoke in Virginia;
“I would describe my presence here with one word — Republican,” said LaHood, a former GOP congressman. “They’re hoping that maybe I can influence some of the people in my own party.”
LaHood described a nettlesome set of problems if, as scheduled, $600 million is eliminated from the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget this year as part of the so-called sequester cuts set to kick in March 1.
“It’s going to be very painful for the flying public,” he said.
Cliff Winston, an economist at the Brookings Institution, expressed skepticism Friday that the cuts are as inflexible as they have been presented.
“There is certainly room to make cuts where they’ll be affecting traffic in the least harmful way,” he said.
LaHood is the latest cabinet member to come forward to paint a grim picture of the federal government under the slashed budget. Obama this week warned that basic police and fire services could be curtailed if lawmakers can’t reach an agreement to delay the cuts.
The warnings have Republicans, who also once decried the impact of the spending cuts, accusing the White House of trying to gin up panic. Increasingly, Republicans have suggested the reduced spending would have minimal impact and might force Washington to tighten its belt.
LaHood denied exaggerating the impact. “The idea that we’re just doing this to create some kind of a horrific scare tactic is nonsense,” he said.
LaHood said all 47,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees will be furloughed for at least one day per two-week pay period and the department had begun talks with the unions and airlines about the changes. He said curtailed staffing would mean fewer air traffic controllers monitoring the skies and slower repair and maintainance.
In addition to air traffic controllers, sequestration cuts to Transportation Security Administration could be felt in airports as early as March.
The full impact of the result would likely be felt by April 1. “And once airlines see the potential impact of these furloughs, we expect that they will change their schedules and cancel flights,” LaHood said.