Government Spending and the FAA

Due to the sequestration cuts, the FAA has decided to cut its air traffic controller staff by 10%. They are doing this by furloughing workers one out of every 10 work days. As a result, as much as 40% of flights are seeing some sort of delay. Meanwhile, the government is spending $890,000 per year on nothing: service fees for empty bank accounts.

There is a debate to whether the furloughs are a way to maximize public harm from the “Sequester” as a political move. The FAA has not prioritized which airports to staff at lower levels, so lower traffic airport workers will see the same furloughs as those working in high traffic airports. Additionally, there is a debate over how much authority the language of the “Sequester” gives the FAA.

The text of the Sequester Bill says that agencies must cut 5% from each “program, project, and activity” within their budgets. The FAA calls each line item in their budget an “activity” which would require, for example, a 5% cut to the activity labeled “Air Traffic Organization.” Some Republican lawmakers say that the F.A.A. has broad discretion in determining how much to cut from which program. They say that the FAA only needs to cut the larger “operations” account by that amount, which would give them more discretion to avoid cutting air traffic controller staff.

The long-term solution to FAA funding problems may not even be in the discussion right now: contract towers. Since 1982, the FAA has been running a program to contract out certain air traffic control towers to private workers. It functions similarly to the Department of Defense’s contracting system, and is called the FCT program. There are currently 250 FCT towers in the country which handle 28% of all domestic airport operations.

A 2012 report by the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General found that on average, contract towers operate at 25% of the cost of similar FAA run towers: an average of $537,000 per year opposed to $2 million per year. Additionally, there does not seem to be a drop off in safety that is often associated with privatizing air traffic control. In reality, the contract towers had a “significantly lower number and rate of safety incidents.” Out of 240 contract towers there were only 197 safety incidents, compared to 92 similar FAA towers which had 362 incidents.

The cost savings of the contract towers was mainly from lower staffing and lower salary levels. Each contract tower had an average of 6 controllers compared to 16 controllers at FAA run towers seeing similar traffic levels. Which brings us back to the furloughs: with the furloughs these FAA towers would still be running at over 14 controllers.

Whether the F.A.A. is legally bound by congress to furlough these employees is debatable. However, a 5% cut in funding causes a 10% reduction in staff which, in turn, results in 40% of flights being delayed is certainly not a model of an efficient organization. Other entities have managed to weather the “Sequester” without the predicted furloughs and shortfalls. For example, the D.O.D. reduced the number of projected furlough days from 22 to 14. The Department of Education has yet to furlough its employees, despite predictions that it would be necessary. So how will the F.A.A. manage?

Additional Resources

The Washington Post, Feds spend at Least $890,000 on Fees for Empty Accounts:

The Tampa Bay Times, Is the Federal Government Funding a Study on Duck Penises?

The Wall Street Journal, Budget Cuts Threaten to Worsen Air Delays:

The Wall Street Journal, Are the FAA Cuts Mandatory or Political?

Aviation and Airport Development News:

CNN, Private Airport Towers as Safe, Cheaper than Government Towers:

WBNG, Shumer, GIllbrand Push Two-Pronged Plan to Keep Ithaca Airport Contract Tower Open for Long-Term:

Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Contract Towers Continue to Provide Cost-Effective and Safe Air Traffic Services, but Improved Oversight of the Program Is Needed:


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