As the exclusive representative of air traffic controllers, traffic manager coordinators, U.S. NOTAM Specialists, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) engineers, aircraft certification professionals, and other aviation safety professionals, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) believes that the looming across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration will be detrimental to the National Airspace System (NAS), as well as to the nation’s fragile economy. All users and operators of the NAS including travelers, general aviation pilots, airlines, businesses and the military will feel the effects of the cuts in the form of a reduction in airport and air traffic control services, a diminishing of the NAS’s flight capacity, increased delays and costs to users, and lags in air traffic modernization. These cuts will be significant, and their effects will likely have long-lasting consequences.
Sequestration is the process of automatic, across-the-board spending reductions under which budgetary resources are permanently canceled to enforce certain budget policy goals. Sequestration was mandated in the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, and intended to motivate Congress to reach a compromise on $1.3 trillion in savings over the next 10 years. When Congress failed to find that compromise, the BCA triggered sequestration.
Passage of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 on January 3, 2013, has altered the terms of sequestration for fiscal year 2013 (FY 2013) by providing an offset. Under the BCA, the FAA would have had to reduce their Operations budget by approximately $88 million a month for nine straight months. Under the new sequestration reductions set to take effect on March 1, the FAA will have to reduce its Operations budget by $70.5 million a month for the next seven months until the end of FY 2013. Since the cuts must now be implemented over the course of seven, not 12 months, sequestration will require dramatic indiscriminant cuts significantly affecting services and capacity.
If sequestration as it currently exists is implemented, the FAA will be mandated to cut a total of $492.9 million from their Operations budget which includes the air traffic controller workforce, $142.4 million from Facilities and Equipment line, which maintains towers and equipment such as navigation beacons, and $8.6 million from the Research, Engineering, and Development line, which funds research on improving aviation safety and operational efficiency, as well as research on reducing the environmental impact of aviation.
On February 22, the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a statement confirming several actions the FAA may take in order to implement across-the-board sequestration cuts:
• Closing over 100 air traffic controller towers at airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations or 10,000 commercial operations per year. They intend for these closures to begin in April.
• Furloughing FAA employees for at least one, and possibly two days per pay period (equivalent to 11-22 furlough days per employee between now and the end of FY 2013). These furloughs would begin in mid April.
• Eliminating the overnight shift at over 60 towers across the country.
• Reducing preventive maintenance and equipment provisioning and support for all NAS equipment.
If these cuts proceed as scheduled, the consequences would begin to result in noticeable operational impacts in mid April. Tower closures and controller furloughs will significantly reduce the capacity of the NAS, negatively affecting the flying public, as well as business and military operations, in numerous ways. A reduction in air traffic control services will ultimately result in fewer flights in the air and increased delays on the tarmac, creating a ripple effect that will hurt the airlines, pilots, flight attendants, private aviation, airport employees, passengers, and all businesses that depend on a vibrant aviation sector, such as those that use air services to transport their goods. These aviation cuts will also negatively affect local communities and their economies, which depend on aviation to attract business.
FAA employees, including air traffic controllers, safety inspectors and other safety professionals, will face between 11 and 22 days of furloughs. According to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, about 10 percent of the workforce would be furloughed on any given day. This will place a heavy strain on a system that operates continuously every hour of every day as there are only 12,770 fully certified air traffic controllers in the FAA. Safety will remain the top priority, but in order to maintain the appropriate level of safety with fewer controllers, fewer planes will be allowed in the sky, as well as in and out of airports.
Those who use and operate the system could experience the following negative consequences as a result of sequestration:
• Reduction in capacity, limiting the number of flights in the air for all forms of aviation.
• Increased delays due to longer ground holds.
• Reduction in airport services.
• Increased costs to airlines and passengers.
• Delays to air traffic control modernization.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller called the deep sequester cuts "reckless," and said the impact would be severe for travelers, as well as smaller communities. "Everyone who travels for business or pleasure will be adversely affected. The administration will never compromise our aviation safety, but practically closing airports in small communities by eliminating air traffic control services will be devastating to local economies," Rockefeller said.
The negative effects on the aviation system made under sequestration could become permanent or be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse once they are implemented. If sequestration cuts continue beyond FY 2013, the cuts will result in a weaker airspace system that looks and performs very differently from the safe and efficient model that exists today. Continuing into FY 2014, the prescribed reductions would revert to an 8.2 percent cut for each of the next nine years, as required by the BCA. If that should occur, aviation safety professionals could be subject to reductions in force (RIFs) and further hiring freezes. Again, safety would be preserved, but the cost would be another decrease in capacity and increased delays and costs for all users of the system. Given the uncertainty regarding how long sequestration will continue, all of these detrimental effects on the NAS and the national economy remain a serious concern.
Aviation and the Economy
Aviation is a major driver of the U.S. economy. Commercial aviation contributes $1.3 trillion in economic activity and comprises 5.2 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually, while providing $75 billion against the U.S. trade deficit. This significant volume of economic activity supports 10.2 million U.S. jobs with $394.4 billion in annual earnings. In 2009, airline operations contributed $150.5 billion to the national GDP, while airport operations generated an additional $44.6 billion.
In addition to the economic contributions, aviation benefits the United States by providing invaluable services to beneficiaries such as individual passengers, airlines, general aviation pilots, the military, and businesses. Two million passengers fly safely through the U.S. NAS on 70,000 flights each day. Facilitated by aviation safety professionals at the FAA, DOD and in the Federal Contract Towers, the NAS is not only the safest and most efficient in the world, but is also a catalyst for U.S. job creation.
Aviation provides the flying public, as well as private businesses and the military, with trained inspectors, professional air traffic controllers, and certification processes that ensure every person, pilot, and aircraft in the NAS is functioning at the highest level of safety and efficiency.
How Sequestration will be Implemented at the FAA
Across-the-board cuts mean sequestration will affect each budget line in the FAA’s budget. At this time, agencies have very limited discretion in how they apply the cuts. Due to the offsets in the American Taxpayer Relief Act passed earlier this year, the total amount to be cut from non- defense discretionary programs is now $85 billion (as opposed to $109 billion). However, the cuts will need to occur over seven months instead of over a full year. Thus each non-defense discretionary budget line will be cut by 5.1 percent for FY 2013. This translates into cutting $492.9 million from the FAA’s Operations budget line, which includes the controller workforce, $142.4 million from Facilities and Equipment line, which maintains towers and tools such as navigation beacons, and $8.6 million from the Research, Engineering, and Development line, which funds research on improving aviation safety and operational efficiency, as well as research on reducing the environmental impact of aviation. Below is a chart detailing the new amounts to be cut for FY 2013.
(Jan 2, 2013)
(March 1, 2013)
Total $ to be cut
54.6 B (9.4%)
$42.5 B (7.3%)
$38 B (8.2%)
$26.4 B (5.1%)
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA): Sequestration Cuts
Facilities & Equipment
Research, Engineering Development
Note: Cuts for Jan. 2, 2013, are taken from the September 2012 OMB memo. Cuts for March 1, 2013, were based on a 5.1 % across-the-board reduction.
Sequestration and the Capacity of our Airspace
Sequestration cuts would significantly reduce the capacity of the NAS, negatively affecting passengers, as well as business and military operations, in numerous ways. Cuts of this magnitude simply cannot be implemented without a significant effect on operations and capacity. Sequestration cuts will create a ripple effect, beginning with the closing of over 100 air traffic towers, the elimination of overnight operations at small air traffic control towers, and the furloughing of thousands of air traffic controllers, and ending with reduced services, decreased capacity, and increased delays throughout the entire system.
Closing over 100 Towers: Our December report outlined the likelihood that sequestration would force the FAA to close air traffic control towers. On February 22, the DOT announced that it expects to begin closing over 100 towers in April. The list of possible towers to be closed includes both FAA and Federal Contract Tower facilities. This FAA-provided list is included at the end of this report.
The number of towers targeted for closure is far higher than anticipated, and will be a serious burden for communities that rely on air traffic control services to attract and maintain businesses. Even temporarily closing a tower affects the NAS. First and foremost, tower controllers give first priority to separating aircraft and issuing safety and weather alerts. Without controllers in the tower, no one will be performing these critical safety functions. Additionally, in most cases, the airspace normally controlled by the tower would revert to uncontrolled airspace. When this occurs, the overlying radar facility (terminal or enroute FAA facilities) would then be responsible for the operations normally worked by the towers. As such, workloads would increase dramatically for FAA facilities compensating for closed towers while they are already coping with reduced staffing due to furloughs. This significant adjustment in workload and responsibility while furloughing personnel would significantly decrease efficiency throughout the national airspace.
The sequester would have an outsized impact on small communities primarily served by regional airlines, according to the Regional Airline Association (RAA). “The communities most dependent on scheduled service from regional airlines for their only connection to the global economy will be hurt the most,” said RAA President Roger Cohen in a statement. He said passengers from communities where regional carriers are the only regular service will be hit by a “double whammy” of shift reductions or airport closings at smaller airports where flights might originate or end, as well as delays and missed connections at connecting hub airports.
These towers also provide military and commercial services that are revenue-generators for their communities. For example, Rogers, Ark. (ROG) serves Walmart and its vendors, as well as Kraft Foods, Hudson Foods, Tyson and J.B. Hunt. The community will suffer if the tower is closed and these businesses either leave or reduce their operations. Similarly, Caterpillar Inc., and Shell are located at Victoria, Texas (VCT) airport, and UPS and Delta are served by the Albany, Ga. (ABY) tower. Albany provides service for Delta Connection flights as well as for the Army, Air Force and for National Guard practice approaches. Each of these services benefits the local communities by attracting businesses that contribute to their economies.
Mandatory Furloughs: On February 22, the DOT announced that it would be issuing furloughs for FAA employees between now and the end of September 2013. Employees may face one to two furloughs per pay period, equaling a total of 11 to 22 furlough days. There are currently no exemptions for anyone working at a federal agency based upon emergency or essential status. The Air Traffic Organization employs 35,000 people, including 14,752 air traffic controllers (of which roughly 2,000 are in training and not fully certified, and 3,100 currently eligible to retire), 7,000 engineers and maintenance technicians, 5,000 supervisors and managers, as well as safety inspectors (CRS Report October 2012). The 7,500 full time equivalent positions including regulators, safety inspectors, safety engineers, and support personnel who are responsible for all federal aviation safety standards and compliance with those standards would also be furloughed. This means reducing the hours of the people who certify aircraft and aircraft components, ensure regulation and oversight of airlines and other aircraft operators, and implement initiatives to reduce safety risks associated with airport operations.
Controller Attrition and Staffing: These mandatory furloughs will occur at a time when Congress and the Administration are also weighing changes to federal employees’ pay and benefits. In the event that both furloughs and negative pay and benefit changes are implemented, federal employees may elect to retire. Air traffic controllers and other safety professionals eligible to retire would be more likely to take advantage of retirement options rather than face a situation where fewer controllers are being asked to maintain the NAS with the same safety and efficiency standards as when the workforce is at full capacity. Over the next ten years, the FAA estimates that more than 12,100 controllers will leave the workforce due to retirement and normal attrition.
History and experience dictate that an attrition rate that high has serious consequences: Between September 2006 and July 2008, 3,312 controllers left the FAA. This mass exodus of controllers left the system staffed at only 71 percent of the acceptable level with the lowest number of certified professional controllers (CPCs) in 16 years. Understaffing caused a significant increase in controller workload and a subsequent need to increase the use of overtime, resulting in an unsustainable rise in controller fatigue. That workforce included many veteran controllers with 15 or more years of experience as compared to today’s workforce, which is less experienced; as of February 2013, about 34 percent of controllers (a little over 5,000) have been hired within the last five years. Their expertise and qualifications are excellent, but it will be a challenge for them to manage the extraordinary burden of handling more traffic with a significantly reduced workforce.
Under the sequestration scenario, there could be dramatic staff departures from the nation’s busiest hubs. Additionally, training replacements at these complex facilities would take several years to complete. Potential retirements coupled with furloughs would significantly affect areas such as New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago.
For example, at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZNY), a total of 103 out of 376 controllers will be eligible for retirement by January 1, 2014. That means we could lose 27 percent of that workforce. At Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZTL), 125 out of 475 (26 percent) controllers would be in a position to retire on January 1, 2014. And at Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZAU), 140 controllers out of 432 (32 percent) could retire on January 1, 2014. Under normal circumstances, these statistics are concerning, but when coupled with the cuts mandated by sequestration, as well as a hiring freeze, controlling traffic with reduced staff could become unsustainable.
These numbers are staggering, especially given the fact that it takes three years to train a new hire to work in such complex airspace. If these controllers retire, the FAA would be faced with a nearly insurmountable loss of controllers. At the same time, they would be hard-pressed to train replacements as quickly as they are leaving.
Hiring Freeze: Another consequence of sequestration will likely be a hiring freeze. Congress is already discussing reducing the federal employee workforce by 10 percent through attrition. If sequestration is allowed to take effect over the long-term, it will be next to impossible for the FAA to continue hiring a new workforce. As outlined above, this could be especially detrimental to the workforce, as many current air traffic controllers are currently eligible to retire, or will be eligible in the next several years. With a hiring freeze, the FAA would be unable to replace senior controllers and keep pace with ordinary attrition.
A Less Efficient National Airspace System: Airports, airlines and passengers will all be immediately and directly affected by sequestration cuts that reduce air traffic services. If the NAS is forced to reduce capacity, airlines will have fewer flights, and fewer passengers will fly. That, in turn, will affect airports that rely on passenger fees, landing fees, and other revenue generated by passengers. At a hearing held by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in July 2012, Airlines for America President Nicholas Calio noted that airlines could become less competitive, and may have to cede international routes due to reduced revenue. This would force them to reduce the scope of their markets, putting U.S.-based businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
As a consequence of the sequestration cuts, the FAA predicts that flights to major cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because fewer air traffic controllers on duty means fewer aircraft in the sky.
We believe that if the cuts and furloughs are fully implemented in April, the FAA’s estimates could turn out to be conservative. According to an informal survey of major air traffic control facilities, we have determined that reduced numbers of controllers around the country will cause a ripple effect of flight delays. Major airports could be forced to shut down a runway that would dotherwise be open simply because they’ll have fewer controllers in towers. Others will need to shift controllers to the busiest parts of the day, thus decreasing their capacity to handle incoming flights at other times. For example, furloughs could force Atlanta to close one runway, reducing its hourly arrival rate during clear-weather conditions from 126 arrivals per hour to 96 arrivals per hour, a 24 percent reduction. In both Chicago and Houston, under ideal weather conditions and using two runways instead of three, the hourly arrival rate could fall by 37 percent. Other major airports would experience similar reductions. Taken together, these reductions will add up to a national airspace facing significant delays throughout the system.
Commercial Airlines: When the capacity of the NAS is reduced, airlines will suffer from increased delays and increased costs. The simple reality is that fewer flights will be in the air at one time, which will lead to increased ground delays, as aircraft must wait longer at the gate and on the tarmac. Increased ground delays will lead to increased fuel consumption and increased costs for airlines. History has shown that increased delays lead to an increase in flight cancellations as delays add up over the course of each day and some flights are cancelled. This in turn would increase the airlines’ passenger load factor, making seats a scarce commodity, and increasing costs to the consumer, which will likely lead to reduced travel expenditures, reduced expenditures on hospitality, and reduced tourism, each of which will have significant impacts on the economy. Reduced capacity in the airspace could also lead to reduced freight expenditures. If sequestration continues into FY 2014, these additional costs will likely seriously harm airlines’ revenue, as well as the ability for ordinary passengers to continue leisure travel.
General Aviation: General aviation (GA) consists of all civilian air traffic that is not scheduled passenger airline service. Eliminating air traffic control services at smaller airports will greatly affect this segment of air traffic because GA pilots rely on air traffic controllers on approach and takeoff. Of the towers that face the highest threat of closure, many primarily handle GA traffic. Without a controller physically present in these towers, more pilots will have to land and take off on their own, without the benefit of safety and separation services. In addition to the obvious safety concerns, the lack of air traffic control services can cause significant and costly delays for GA pilots. This will occur when GA pilots are forced to wait longer for each approach and departure as only one aircraft can arrive and/or depart at a time without air traffic services. Having reduced services at smaller airports will have a serious economic effect on communities that rely on air transit for businesses and other purposes.
General aviation training will also be affected because pilot qualifications require a certain number of takeoffs and landings at towered airports. General aviation pilots will have limited access to towered airports, thus hindering the training process.
NextGen: If sequestration takes place, significant projects may be slowed down at a time when the FAA, NATCA, and the aviation industry are finally seeing progress on programs such as En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), Optimization of Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex (OAPM), Satellite Based Surveillance (SBS) and Terminal Automation Modernization and Replacement (TAMR). These efforts could flounder when collaboration is finally paying off because furloughed controllers would not be available to participate in collaborative workgroups as operational experts. Programs such as ERAM, once in trouble when the front-line workforce was not involved, has significantly benefited from the insight of aviation professionals whose invaluable expertise would be lost through the required cuts under sequestration.
One collaborative NextGen project showing particular progress is OAPM, which is a joint effort by the FAA and aviation industry aimed at integrating airspace and de-conflicting traffic flows over major metropolitan areas (known as metroplexes). OAPM study teams at sites around the country rely on current aircraft navigation capabilities to enhance airport arrival and departure paths, provide diverging departure paths to get aircraft off the ground more quickly, and add more direct, high-altitude RNAV navigation routes between metroplexes. D.C. Metro OAPM, Houston OAPM, and North Texas OAPM have all completed the design phase and are moving into the evaluation phase. Northern California OPAM is the next site to complete its design phase, and Charlotte and Atlanta OAPMs are quickly approaching 90 percent completion of their design. Southern California OAPM is only three weeks into the design phase, and Florida OAPM is supposed to begin in April 2013. Early returns in the Washington, D.C. area indicate substantial fuel savings and reduced carbon emissions. If sequestration cuts were to take place, all OAPM study teams could be stopped. This would mean the millions of dollars the FAA has spent in research would not yield the results that other study sites, such as the Washington D.C. area, have demonstrated.
NextGen delays would also have an overall effect on the economy. If research, planning, and construction spending is reduced, not only will essential modernizations be delayed, but less money will be invested in the U.S. economy. The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) study found that a reduction of 30 percent in NextGen funding could result in up to $40 billion in lost economic output by 2021. It could cost 700,000 jobs by 2021, and as many as 1.3 million by 2035 (AIA July 2012 Report).
National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) president Ed Bolen said that the risks to the nation’s air transportation system posed by sequestration are serious. “Concerns over the prospect of sequestration have created an added level of uncertainty for system users,” Bolen said. “Potential cuts in FAA funding overall, and NextGen funding in particular, would have a severe impact on the NextGen implementation process.” (NBAA Sept. 12, 2012).
Aviation is an essential component of our national economy, contributing $1.3 trillion every year to our GDP. In order to continue contributing to economic growth, the FAA needs appropriate, predictable funding to continue directing the safest, most complex and efficient airspace in the world. If Congress allows sequestration to become a reality, cuts to aviation will be widespread; The NAS supports a wide array of commercial and private activities, and cutting services, reducing safety monitoring, and reducing the controller workforce are all steps toward permanently reducing the capacity of the NAS – we do not foresee these services being restored to their current levels if these cuts are allowed to take place. In addition, shifting the financial liability away from the federal government and onto local and municipal governments will create a burden on rural communities who will be unable to support essential aviation services necessary to small communities and businesses around the country. As the cuts under sequestration force the FAA to take measures that reduce capacity and limit services to otherwise inaccessible communities, the entire economy will be affected.
On February 15, 2013, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood wrote a letter to Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski of the Senate Appropriations Committee. In that letter, the Secretary used strong language to describe the “serious impacts on transportation services that are critical to the traveling public.” He predicted that “the furlough of a large number of air traffic controllers and technicians will require a reduction in air traffic to a level that can be safely managed by remaining staff. The result will be felt across the country, as the volume of travel must be decreased. Sequestration could slow air traffic levels in major cities, which will result in delays and disruptions across the country.”
We in the aviation community are proud users and providers of aviation services. As the front line in this field, it is our role to warn the rest of the country that aviation cuts will be detrimental to our economy, and will result in widespread delays, cuts, and inconveniences. We urge Congress to act before it is too late in order to save our NAS and our economy.
DOT List on Facilities that Could be Closed in FY 2013
Mobile Downtown Airport (Brookley)
Texarkana Muni/Webb Fld
San Diego Brown Field
Santa Monica Municipal
William J Fox
New Smyrna Beach Municipal
Page Field (Fort Myers)
St Lucie County International (Fort Pierce)
Ormand Beach Municipal
Kalaeloa (John Rogers Field)
Lewiston-Nez Perce County
Friedman Memorial / Hailey
St Louis Regional
Garden City Regional
Johnson County Executive
Philip Billard Municipal
Washington Co. Reg'l/Hagerstn
Coleman A. Young Municipal (Detroit)
Jefferson City Memorial
Rosecrans Mem'l/St. Joseph
Golden Triangle Regional
Meridian / Key Field
Glacier Park International
Coastal Carolina Regional
Smith Reynolds (Winston Salem)
Central Nebraska/Grd Island
Double Eagle II
Santa Fe County Municipal
Francis S. Gabreski
Ohio State University
Columbus (Bolton Field)
Youngstown Warren Regional
Univ Of Oklahoma/Westheimer
Enid Woodring Municipal
Southwest Oregon Regional
McNary Field (Salem)
Arnold Palmer Regional (Latrobe)
Grand Strand/Myrtle Beach
New Braunfels Municipal
Lone Star Executive
Fort Worth Spinks
San Marcos Municipal
McKinney/Collin County Regional
Walla Walla Regional
Chippewa Valley Regional (Eau Claire)
Southern Wisconsin Regional (Janesville)
Lawrence J Timmerman
Wheeling Ohio County
Tri State Milton J.Ferguson Field (Huntington)
Parkersburg/ Wood County
DOT List on Facilities Whose Overnight Shifts Could be Eliminated in FY 2013
High Desert TRACON
City of Colorado Springs Municipal
Fort Lauderdale Executive
Palm Beach International
Boise Air Terminal/Gowen Field
Greater Peoria Regional
Fort Wayne International
Terre Haute International-Hulman Field
Des Moines Tower
Lexington (Blue Grass)
Capital City (Lansing)
Willow Run (Detroit)
Kansas City Downtown
Fayetteville Regional/Grannis Field
Piedmont Triad Internt'l (Greensboro)
Hector International (Fargo)
Reno Tahoe International
Greater Rochester Internat'l
Syracuse Hancock International
Akron Canton Regional
Youngstown Warren Regional
Oklahoma City Will Rogers
Lehigh Valley International (Allentown)
Wilkes Barre Scranton International
Luis Munoz Marin Internat'l (San Juan)
Charleston AFB International
McGhee Tyson (Knoxville)
Corpus Christi International
Fort Worth Meacham
Roanoke Regional Woodrum Field
General Mitchell Internat'l (Milwaukee)
Tri State Milton J.Ferguson Field (Huntington)