It’s time to go all Snopes ‘n stuff on a bad rumor going around small towns over the past 5 weeks: that 106 small airports will be forced to close by federal budget cuts that will go into effect in January.
Now, it’s correct that on January 2nd there’s significant federal budget cuts scheduled to take place. No one really thinks this will happen, since almost no lawmaker wants it to happen, but they haven’t yet figured out a way around it.
As a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011 signed back in August, unless Congress and the President agree on an alternative there’s supposed to be an automatic cut of $1 trillion in spending over ten years, split equally between defense and non-defense activities (so about $50 billion in non-defense spending in 2013).
A rather silly report last month from the Center for American Progress claimed that these cuts would mean furloughs and then terminations for air traffic controllers which would require either closing down all airports serving fewer than 600,000 passengers a year or shutting down the entire US air traffic system one day a week (“flightless Fridays”).
This led to lots of stories in small towns about losing their airports, like this piece on Roanoke.
But as Bob Poole explains in the indispensable Airport Policy News (yes, that really exists, and yes it’s indispensable), that’s simply not how ‘sequestration’ would work.
Poole explains that if budgets are required to be cut next year under the Budget Control Act, the FAA would see a reduction of $1.35 billion in funding. He then explains that the Center for American Progress report arbitrarily assumed that the FAA’s capital investments wouldn’t see any cuts, in order to claim deep cuts would come from air traffic control. The study further assumes that all layoffs happen in ‘towers’ (rather than TRACON facilities and centers where most air traffic controllers actually work).
So what would actually happen?
A far more sober assessment comes from Rich Efford, a former congressional budget staffer now at Aerospace Industries of America. He suggests, quite realistically, that neither the FAA nor Congress would countenance shut-downs of ATC facilities or smaller airports. The path of least resistance would be what it always is: sacrifice capital investment to preserve current operations. So the $1.35 billion in cuts would come, in all likelihood, from the $2.75 billion Facilities & Equipment account, thereby further delaying implementation of the NextGen air traffic modernization.
Poole concludes, “there is essentially zero threat that airports will be shut down due to layoffs or furloughs of air traffic controllers.”