By Michael Iorfino
Travelers will see longer security lines, more flight delays and a decrease in the number of flights offered if Congress can’t avert automatic federal spending cuts set to take effect this week.
In a letter addressed to agency employees, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta said the FAA would face $600 million in funding cuts through September – a 4 percent reduction from its proposed 2013 budget of $15.2 billion – under the sequester.
The slash is part of the across-the-board budget cuts, or sequestration, targeted at trimming the nation’s deficit by $1.2 trillion, starting Friday.
Though a seemingly small percentage, officials said the slash would likely require the agency to cut the number of air traffic controllers and technicians – a move that would have a trickle-down effect, influencing the financial state of airports across the county.
“It would practically paralyze the system,” said aviation analyst Michael Boyd. “They (air traffic controllers) are the ones that make sure the planes get in the sky safely.”
Fewer air traffic controllers, he said, would mean more flight delays and more cancellations, as the level of air traffic would have to reflect the capabilities of the diminished staff.
Fewer flights offered, which would allow airlines to drive prices up, means airports will receive less money, he said.
“The skies would be bare, and in the end, that would affect the airports,” Mr. Boyd said. “Everyone is affected – the passengers, the airlines, the airport and the community where the airport is located, because less people would be coming in.”
For months, FAA officials were tight-lipped about how a federal sequester would affect the aviation industry, only recently providing a general outline of what the agency would do to address the funding reduction but failing to delve into specifics, such as how many airport control towers will close or how many employees would be furloughed.
Mr. Huerta and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood addressed those questions and acknowledged the ramifications the cuts would have on the efficiency of air travel in a letter issued to aviation colleagues Friday.
Though nothing is finalized, the letter states the majority of the FAA’s 47,000 employees will lose one work day every pay period through September. More than 100 air traffic control towers at airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations, six of which are in Pennsylvania, could close.
The rippling effects of the cuts could be felt close to home as well.
The tower at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport is among the 60 towers nationwide that could lose overnight air traffic control shifts if the cuts happen.
Though it could cause flight delays or affect other operations, the cuts likely wouldn’t force the airport to reduce the number of late-night flights, as pilots are trained to operate under those circumstances.
The latest departing flight is a 6:50 p.m. to Philadelphia through US Airways, according to the airport’s website.
“I don’t know whether there will be more canceled flights, or how many air traffic controllers will be laid off; all of that is still unknown,” said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport Director Barry Centini two days before the letter was issued.
Mr. Centini emphasized the airport could still operate even without an air traffic control tower, and said he believes the airport would continue operating as it is today.
Officials said many airports across the country don’t have air traffic control towers, but instead rely on terminal area controllers on the ground to communicate with pilots, who also communicate with each other, in order to take off and land.
When asked whether he was concerned that the airport would be a casualty of the spending cuts, Mr. Centini said, “No.”
Then he added, “I look at it this way: If the worst were to happen, it would not happen to us alone. It would happen to airports across the country. We all would be in the same boat.”
While aviation officials are bracing for the potential sequester, state Department of Transportation officials are less concerned.
Under the Budget Control Act of 2011, a number of transportation programs are exempt from the spending cuts, including the trust-funded highway programs, motor carrier safety programs, vehicle safety programs and transit formula and bus grants.
“A majority of the federal funding the commonwealth receives for transportation comes from the federal highway trust fund,” PennDOT Deputy Press Secretary Erin Waters-Trasatt said, though she couldn’t specify how much PennDOT received from the fund.