By Sabrina Siddiqui and Ryan Grim
WASHINGTON — For the most part, the super wealthy are not directly affected by cuts to government services. Private security guards, private schools and private money have a way of blunting the impact of austerity. But the Obama administration is hitting the rich in one place that hurts — on the runway.
Sequestration-related budget cuts will lead to the closure of 149 air traffic control towers across the country, the Federal Aviation Administration announced last week. The decision strikes the type of smaller airports on which the well-heeled rely for private jet travel, in what looks like an effort to galvanize the one percent to exercise their considerable political influence to help end the sequester.
The congressional attempt to stave off the airport attack failed. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) was rebuffed last month when he tried to amend legislation to assure an extra $50 million was allocated to preserve private plane travel. “What cracked me up during the CR [continuing resolution] debate was watching Moran foam at the mouth with [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid stopping him from getting a vote,” quipped one Senate Democratic aide. “Fiscal control! We need the sequester! Except, of course, when it affects them.”
A host of other Republican lawmakers have criticized the shuttering of air traffic control towers in their districts.
“I am deeply disappointed with the FAA’s decision to close the air traffic control towers at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport and St. Cloud Regional Airport,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), referring to the move as a “troubling lack of priorities.”
“Any action by the Obama administration that does jeopardize safety is more evidence that the White House is implementing the sequester in ways to only score political points,” said Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.).
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) complained about the effect on his own travel in a tweet on Monday. “Seems strange to fly from Austin to Houston (east) just to get to Midland-Odessa (west). Oh, well,” he wrote.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who has applauded the broader federal budget cuts, signed onto a letter opposing the closure of the towers. Seven of the 149 towers are in Kansas, one of which serves an airport used by Huelskamp himself.
The only problem with the administration’s approach, said one Democratic operative who works closely with the super rich, is that the wealthier people are, the less likely they are to notice exactly what’s happening. “In theory, it works,” he said of the effort to inflict a little inconvenience on the tarmac. “In actuality, the thing about being that rich is you don’t have to give a f***. Here’s what’ll happen. The plane’s late and they’ll yell at their assistant, ‘Why did it take two hours to take off?’ And the assistant won’t know and will make up some dumb excuse.”
He allowed, at least, that corporate travelers would know what happened. “Corporate execs will notice. The only reason they take the jet is efficiency,” he said.
A Republican operative, who has similarly worked with a wide swath of rich folks, was equally skeptical that pain could be inflicted on the one percent.
“You cannot make life uncomfortable for the supremely rich. It’s just not possible,” he said. “Seated in the lounge of the private air flight terminal at Teterboro [a general aviation airport not far from Manhattan] is not exactly standing in line with your belt off and shoes off. You’re probably drinking a mimosa while someone tells you there’s a technical problem with a blade or something. They’ll make it up in the Gulf Stream. These pilots can put pedal to the metal and make up 20 minutes. No rich guy is going to sweat this.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who represents a disproportionate number of people who can afford private jet travel, railed against the cuts, joining Moran in his attempt to stave them off. The Democrat told local CBS Radio that the only reason the government was targeting small airports was to dramatize the effect of sequestration. The FAA, he noted, “has the $50 million to sustain these local control towers, but it is refusing to use the unspent money that it has in other accounts.”
Backers of private runways even enlisted Harrison Ford in the fight. The fictional space-fighter pilot, whose love for flying his own private plane is well documented, came to Capitol Hill last month to meet with 170 members of the House General Aviation Caucus and warned that “accidents are going to happen,” according to an airline trade publication. Ford and caucus co-chair Sam Graves (R-Mo.), described in one article as “frequent flying buddies,” discussed some of the routes they’ve flown in the mountainous Northwest.
Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, said that in the 30-year history of the contract tower program, under which the FAA provides air traffic control services to private airports, only three towers have been closed. It’s not by accident, he told HuffPost, that the FAA suddenly plans to shut down 149 towers while citing budget cuts.
“I hate to question people’s motives, but what I can’t question is the fair[ness] and balance of it,” Dickerson said, when asked if the Obama administration was deliberately going after the high-dollar political donors and lawmakers who frequent smaller airports.
“If you’re cutting the rest of the FAA by 5 percent and you’re cutting this program by 60 percent, you have to wonder why,” he added. “In our mind, it’s only because they wanted to make closing towers the poster child of sequestration.”
Dickerson also argued that the closure of the towers poses a genuine threat to aviation safety. “The towers provide an extra level of safety and an extra set of eyes,” he said. “It’s like pulling traffic lights and stop signs out of a busy metropolitan city.”
The Associated Press reported last month that hundreds of small airports currently operate without control towers. Instead, pilots communicate directly with each other to avoid risky situations.