So Close the Towers, Already
On Friday, a mere four days hence, the dreaded federal budget sequestration will begin. So what's going to happen? Probably not much just after March 1. The real action won't start until Congress has to get off its collective incompetent hind quarters and debate the Continuing Resolution to fund the government in general. In the meantime, various federal agencies have been anticipating the sequestration cuts and can probably keep from going over the cliff service wise immediately after March 1.
Part of that planning is political optics. That's why you saw SecTran Ray LaHood trotted out in a White House press conference last week shamelessly invoking the fear and doubt strategy, and warning that as many as 100 control towers could close as a result of budget cutbacks. Imagine the horror of pilots having to find runways without federal assistance at some airports that probably didn't need a tower in the first place. Almost gleefully, LaHood warned of airport travel delays and flight cancellations, all designed to stoke public fear and pressure Congress. He was unusually blunt in saying that's exactly what will happen by June or July, if not sooner. I think the play will take longer to unfold, frankly.
Never to let a crisis go to waste, the alphabets jumped right on this. Within hours, we got a press release from AOPA with Craig Fuller in high dudgeon over the Congress daring to sacrifice GA safety—that holiest of aviation hypostases--on the altar of politics. One can't help but speculate that this could be a bonanza for the association, as it uses a wholly manufactured budget crisis to coax yet more funds from its members to protect the second holy entity: the right to fly. Who gets screwed here, of course, is the flying public and what's left of GA. Forgive me for thinking that in Alphabet World, only more member money will fix this. It's enough to make me want to shred my Aviation Special Interest membership card and do something useful with it, like starting the poolside barbeque.
If I sound cynical and pissed about this, I am. And you should be too. I don't much give a fig who's fault the sequestration is, just recall that its purpose was to posit budget cuts so fundamentally stupid that they would never be executed. But, stupid or not, that's exactly what might be happening and it could have real impact on aviation, LaHood's sky-is-falling hysteria notwithstanding. As noted in this this independent report almost half of the $1.2 trillion in cuts come from non-defense spending, including the FAA. Neither the Congress nor FAA have been specific about potential cuts so the agency is evidently on its own to apportion the reductions. If Econsult's numbers are to be believed, cuts to the full depth would erode passenger enplanements by up to 10 percent and heavily dent tax revenues and aviation's overall contribution to the economy. Forget about pilot starts and improved aircraft sales. These are likely to be measureable effects and they are depressive, endangering an already fragile recovery.
And why is this so? Look in the mirror. We, as voters, keep sending these dimwits to Washington and since 2008, if not before, they have proven utterly unwilling to address fiscal matters at all, let alone wisely. Special interests complicate this. By joining AOPA or NBAA, we're effectively hiring our own lobbyists to make sure the cuts happen to someone else, not us. The alphabets don't do wise public policy, they represent only their members' narrow interests. We don't want higher taxes. We don't want user fees. But we also don't want reduced services. At some point, I think we might get all three and we probably deserve it for sustaining the current Congress. Consider this list of airports on the potential tower chopping block. I'll bet if I said Easton/Newnam Field in Maryland or Middle Georgia Regional could do without a tower, proponents of both could cite reasons why they're special and they, among all the others, deserve federal dollars for a control tower. These tower budgets represent a rounding error in the federal budget, but so do many other pet projects that members of other special interests consider near and dear.
So what are we supposed to do here? I write my Congressman regularly asking for fair, considered spending cuts. He never answers. Personally, I've recalibrated my expectations. Everyone agrees that the federal government spends too much money. The cuts have to come from somewhere. And while I don't believe aviation is overfunded, exactly, I also don't buy the boilerplate that closing towers reduces flight safety. In some cases, yes, but in many others, it's the difference between 98.8 percent and 98.9 percent. As a citizen and a taxpayer first and a pilot second, I'm more than willing to accept reductions in aviation services in order to get the balance sheet back in order, as long as cuts throughout the federal budgeting process are intelligently proportioned.
The chances of this happening seem remote at the moment. In this interesting podcast fellow journalist and pilot Jim Fallows figures the body politic is about as dysfunctional as it has ever been, the Civil War excepted. Depressing as it is, he's probably right.