FAA: Sequester cuts "bad" but we've got no choice

Travel editor Peter Greenberg discusses what effect the government's massive spending cuts will have on the F.A.A. and Americans traveling in the near future.

As the blame game over sequestration cuts reignites in Congress, Federal Aviation Association (FAA) administrator Michael Huerta today defended the department's choices, arguing that long lines at the airport are preferable to unsafe flying conditions.

Huerta, unveiling the FAA's 2014 budget at a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, said the administration is struggling to implement a $637 million budget cut this year as a result of sequestration - and that while all of the options for cuts are "bad," it's the only plausible way forward.

"We refuse to sacrifice safety even if it means less efficient operations," Huerta said.

The FAA has already reduced as much money as possible from "non-pay" areas like outside contracts, information technology, travel, and other areas, Huerta said, but the savings those reductions produced weren't enough to reach the $637 million worth of cuts. Consequently, he said, the FAA had "no choice" but to furlough its 14,750 air traffic controllers two days a month, to reduce workers' overtime hours, to cut back on training activities, and to generally sacrifice efficiency in the name of safety.

Last weekend, travelers started to feel the impacts of these reductions: Major airports saw flight delays up to 80 minutes.

"The hardest thing that we have to do is reduce these hours, but in order to hit the target we need to hit we don't really have any choice," Huerta said Wednesday. "What we are focused on first and foremost is to maintain safe operations."

Republican lawmakers, including many who voted for sequestration, have been quick to target the Obama administration for the FAA furloughs, and some complained that Congress had not been properly warned of its consequences.

"The first question I want answered is, why didn't you tell us about it beforehand?" asked Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., at the hearing. Rogers, who is one of 174 Republican House members who voted for sequestration, decried the FAA for allegedly "trying to blame Congress" for the cuts. He called the FAA's handling of the situation "disgusting."

At a briefing with reporters this morning on Capitol Hill, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, accused the Obama administration of trying to cause "as much pain as they can to the traveling public" in how they are implementing cuts. He argued there are alternate cuts the administration could make that would have less impact, and that major airports shouldn't be forced to bear the same cuts as those in small cities.

Huerta argued that the FAA doesn't want to pick winners and losers, and pointed out during his testimony that the Obama administration did warn Congress about how sequestration would likely impact the country, and Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., expressed surprise that people seemed so shocked by the cuts.

In the lead-up to sequestration, the Obama administration launched an aggressive campaign aimed at spelling out how damaging sequestration would be if enacted, and particularly stressed the option of long lines at the airports and inconveniences in air travel. A handful of Republican lawmakers - including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. -- dismissed these warnings.

"The American people really don't believe when spending's gone up that much since 2009 -- that a 2.4 percent cut in spending is cutting a lot," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., last month.

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