Rep. Joe Pitts: FAA’s Needless Furloughs Inconvenience Travelers

Rep. Joe Pitts
Pottstown Mercury

After a week of pain for travelers of America’s skies, the administration finally admitted that the Federal Aviation Administration has enough funding to keep air traffic controllers on the job. With the White House’s agreement, the Senate and House passed legislation forcing the FAA to move money between accounts and keep controllers on the job.

Earlier this month, the FAA had instituted a series of furloughs that they claimed were required by the President’s sequester cuts. While backups and delays were not as bad as predicted, they were still a great inconvenience for travelers who want to spend less time waiting and more time moving.

The administration has been doing their best to make spending cuts hurt the American people. Frankly, the White House was hoping that pressure from air travellers would strengthen the President’s hand to raise taxes again. The furloughs were a political weapon, not a budget necessity.

Proof of this comes from letters revealed last week by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla). One FAA whistleblower wrote: “I am disgusted with everything that I see since the sequester took place. Whether in HQ or at the field level it is clear that our management has no intention of managing anything. The only effort that I see is geared towards generating fear and demonstrating failure.

The FAA is not wanting for resources. Since 1996, their operations budget has grown by 109 percent, from $4.6 billion to $9.7 billion. This would make sense if they were managing substantially more air traffic. However, since 2000 air traffic has actually decreased by 27 percent. Airlines are more efficient now, making sure that most flights they make are near full capacity.

Much of this glut in funding went to failed projects. Modernization programs at the agency have had cost overruns of more than $4 billion. Meanwhile, spending on conferences was going up. Over the last seven years, 18,000 employees were flown around the country to destinations like Las Vegas. Three conferences in the city cost over $5 million in 2010.

While the FAA has known that the sequester cuts were on the way, they repeatedly ignored Congressional requests for information on how the cuts would be implemented. Instead of strategically working with fewer resources, the FAA plowed ahead with a plan that would maximize delays and only let Congress know their plans last week.

For example, the Waterloo Regional Airport in Iowa has around 79 air traffic controller operations a day. The Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center conducts 8,200 per day. The FAA implemented furloughs at the same rate for both locations.

They also treated all of their employees the same regardless of how important they were to the agency’s primary mission of managing air traffic. The FAA employs 47,000 people but only 15,500 of these personnel are air traffic controllers. All were furloughed at the same rate

The FAA also scheduled hundreds of smaller contract tours for shut down, including the tower at Lancaster Airport. While the bill passed this week does not explicitly prevent these shut downs, the FAA has more than enough resources to keep these towers open.

Essentially, the FAA decided to throw a tantrum. A five percent cut would mean that every air traveler would suffer. This is in line with other administration sequester moves such as closing off the White House for tours.

By contrast, the House of Representatives has cuts its own budget by 15 percent over the past three years. We’ve stayed open by increasing efficiency. In my own office, constituent letters are answered as promptly as always even though I had to save money by not replacing an employee who left. I will not let budget reductions be an excuse to reduce service.

The federal government is taking in more tax revenue this year than ever before, but it will still rack up around $1 trillion in debt. Clearly we have a spending problem. Finding increasingly sophisticated ways to tax the American people won’t solve our budget problems. It will only be a further drag on an economy that is struggling to recover.

It’s time to refocus every government agency on essential missions, not just the FAA. All federal agencies have to remember that every dollar they spend comes from the hard work of the American people.

Rep. Joe Pitts is a Republican who represents Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional District, which includes portions of Berks, Chester and Lancaster counties.

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