Why FAA Has To Shutter 149 Air Traffic Control Towers

When they’re not pretending sequestration is a nothingburger, or that its worst consequence is an Obama administration decision to end public White House tours, Republicans are actually concerned about one genuine artifact of the law’s indiscriminate spending cuts. And to deflect criticism from their constituents, they’re mischaracterizing it as a political stunt rather than an inevitable consequence of their unwillingness to compromise with Democrats.“The FAA must re-evaluate its decision, and the White House must put an end to its political charade,” said Rep James Sensenbrenner (R-WI).

Sequestration is hitting the Department of Transportation like almost every other cabinet-level department. But unlike other departments, most of its employees work for one agency — the Federal Aviation Administration — and most of that agency’s employees are air traffic controllers.

Because of that, sequestration is forcing FAA to furlough employees, institute a hiring freeze and shutter 149 contractor-operated air-traffic control towers around the country.

It’s that last effect that makes members of Congress, particularly Republicans, so nervous. And since, percentage-wise, contractors are facing larger cuts than other other FAA activities and operations, they’re claiming that the cuts are designed to create a political headache for members of Congress — not to comply with sequestration’s spending cut requirements or safety provisions elsewhere in federal law.

Not so, says FAA, which claims that cuts to contractor towers are the least-bad way for the FAA to fully comply with sequestration’s arbitrary strictures.

Sequestration requires affected agencies to cut all of accounts in their budgets (save exempted ones) by the same percentage, and to achieve those savings by cutting all programs and activities financed by those accounts by the same percentage as well.

Given those tight constraints, you might think every airport or every tower in the whole country would be required to scale back its operations by the same amount. But that’s not how the FAA is structured. And by the agency’s reading of the law, it can make outsized cuts at low-traffic airports to limit consequences both at these airports and around the country, for air travel and for the national economy.

“These towers control traffic at airports with lower activity levels,” wrote Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a co-authored op-ed. “Together, they handle less than 3 percent of commercial operations nationally, and less than 1 percent of air passengers.”

The cuts are a direct consequence of FAA’s need to apply sequestration to its operations account — the largest in its budget, and the one out of which FAA employees are paid. Hence the furloughs and hiring freeze. But underneath that it must also make sure it’s cutting an equal percentage from contracts as from other operations functions. And closing the contractor-operated towers was the least-bad way for FAA to comply with sequestration.

“The contract tower program is structured in a way that we could achieve savings in fiscal year ’13 most easily,” said an FAA spokesperson.

Republicans in affected districts, like Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL), complain that the FAA could just as easily slash “waste, fraud, and abuse like the $500 million that the FAA spends on consultants.” But FAA notes that though that the consultant contract category is labeled in such a way that it can be characterized as wasteful, most of the money is essential to the nation’s air traffic system.

“Our estimate is that about $21 million of that number is what would truly be designated as consulting services, which represents only about one percent of our total contract obligations for last fiscal year,’ Huerta explained at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing this February. “What is included in this number are some very large service contracts, the largest of which is a program called FTI, our federal telecommunications infrastructure program. That program is about a $228 million program, and what that is is the telecommunications infrastructure that underlies the whole air traffic control system, which is provided to us by a private contractor, but for budget classification purposes falls into this larger account.”

According to Government Executive magazine, 14 jurisdictions have filed lawsuits against the FAA to overturn the decision to close the towers, arguing that they violate federal air safety laws.

“We welcome any and all efforts to reverse the FAA’s decision both in federal courts and on Capitol Hill,” Spencer Dickerson, president of the American Association of Airport Executives and the U.S. Contract Tower Association, told the magazine. “We’re profoundly disappointed because this is clearly an administration and White House-driven decision to make control towers the poster child of sequestration, to make it very visible and very painful to the American people.”

It’s true that the tower cuts will soon become one of the most visible consequences of sequestration. What’s less clear is if there was ever any way for the FAA to avoid the decision. But the obvious solution to this problem is for affected members to negotiate in good faith to either turn off sequestration or pay it down in a way that’s amenable to both parties. And so far they’ve shown no willingness to do either.