One of the riskiest outcomes of congressional gridlock and the resulting budget sequester kicked into gear this week with the layoff of 10 percent of the nation’s air traffic controllers.
On Monday, with 1,500 controllers off the job, delays of one to three hours were reported at some of the nation’s most congested airports. Conditions are expected to deteriorate significantly during summer, the peak travel season. The Federal Aviation Administration has estimated that one-third of all passengers will face delays, with as many as 6,700 flights arriving late each day.
Inconvenient as that will be, the more troubling element of the cutback is the gamble being taken on the safety of airline passengers.
The budget sequester itself was a bad bet that backfired. It was set in motion in 2011 when, with the White House and Congress at an impasse over budget cuts, a so-called supercommittee was established to work out a deal. If that failed, automatic cuts were to take place. The thinking at the time was that the mandated cuts were so unpalatable and lacking in logic that, surely, an agreement would be reached so they’d never go into effect.
So much for that.
Among the Draconian measures: The FAA must cut $637 million from its spending during this fiscal year, which ends Oct. 1. The agency decided to recoup $200 million of that by reducing air traffic controllers. Was this a political calculation by the Obama Administration, designed to get the public fired up against the cuts? Maybe.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the budget morass, including Tea Party Republicans’ refusal to compromise. More problematic is the risk being taken with the safety of the nation’s aviation system by reducing the number of air traffic controllers needed to direct 23,000 planes each day.
We’re not talking about closing national parks or canceling tours of the White House. There is the possibility that real harm on a grand scale could result from an air traffic control system that is stretched too thin.
If Congress and the White House keep playing this bad hand, they could end up with blood on their own.