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How ‘Sequestration’ Will Impact the Aviation Community

Updated February 27, 2013

Background on Sequestration

As the 113th Congress gets underway, and officials in all branches of government debate ways to reduce the nation’s deficit, one continually emerging topic is “sequestration,” or across-the-board cuts at all federal agencies, which were called for in legislation passed by congress in 2011 as a means for lowering the deficit.

As originally conceived, the idea behind sequestration was that it would prove an indiscriminate, and therefore untenable, means of broadly cutting spending to all federal programs; essentially, the prevailing notion was that a more attractive solution would be formulated for tackling the problem.

As the debate over deficit reduction continues, policymakers have several options: they can pass another extension to the nation’s “debt ceiling”, which would allow increases for spending on federal services beyond congressionally established budget allowances; they can approve legislation to further raise revenues to offset spending for government programs; they can allow sequestration to enact mandatory spending cuts for federal services; or they can require some combination of all of the above.

However, to date, a comprehensive deficit-reduction package has yet to be agreed upon, and the moment is quickly approaching when spending on federal services will again surpass the revenues available to fund those services. When that moment passes, on or about March 1, 2013, Washington will exceed its debt-ceiling limit.  

Absent an overall deficit-reduction plan, sequestration will remain the only means in place for addressing the situation, and under such a scenario, government services related to aviation will be impacted. As just one example, the FAA will be required to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget for the remainder of this fiscal year.  

Sequestration and the Aviation Community

Such an outcome was detailed in a February 20, 2013, letter jointly signed by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sent to several aviation associations, including NBAA. The same day the letter was sent, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood held a press conference to expand upon the content of the agencies’ letter.

Officials from both agencies have met with representatives from NBAA and other organizations to discuss this unique situation. In response, NBAA staff have provided specific recommendations to the FAA for minimizing the operational impact on business aviation stemming from funding reductions; an opportunity to continue the discussion should emerge in early March, because none of the steps contemplated by FAA under sequestration would take effect before April 1.

That said, as government and industry work through this process, the following is NBAA’s understanding of the environment, and the concerns it raises for the business aviation community.

First, sequestration is not structured as a short-term exercise. Unless Congress changes the law passed in 2011, the budget cuts resulting from sequestration will have a lasting impact. 

Second, as the sequestration relates to the FAA specifically, most of the agency’s budget will be exempt, by law, from the sequester.

For example, funds for the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (maintenance and improvement of airport runways and other infrastructure); Facilities and Equipment (the FAA’s bricks-and-mortar structures); and Research (programs including those related to the development of some aspects of the Next Generation air traffic control system) are nearly all ineligible for sequester cuts.

This means, from a practical standpoint, the FAA must concentrate its spending reductions on the services provided under the agency’s Operations budget, which involves the scheduling of personnel (including air traffic controllers, flight facility technicians and others employed by the agency); the contract work being performed for the FAA; and the preventative maintenance and repair work provided to facilities and services used by the agency and its customers in the aviation community.

The FAA has stated emphatically that safety will not be compromised as a result of the Operations funding used to comply with sequestration requirements. That said, the agency’s day-to-day operations will inevitably be impacted; here’s how.

  • FAA officials plan for employee furloughs on the basis of one day out of every pay period (every ten business days, or two calendar weeks) starting in April and continuing through at least the end of the government’s fiscal year on September 30. Air Traffic Control facility managers will have the flexibility to schedule those furloughs so that they have the least-intrusive impact on each facility’s efficiencies.
  • In terms of the contract work, the agency will likely focus most closely on the air traffic control towers managed under the Federal Contract Tower Program. The FAA has identified both these FAA-funded contract towers, as well as government-run control towers, with less than 150,000 total operations, or less than 10,000 commercial operations that will potentially be closed to meet sequester requirements. In recent public remarks, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has suggested that the service reductions at the towers could have a disproportionate impact on general aviation. The list of the towers FAA is focusing on can be found on the agency’s website; however, the list is not final, and NBAA and other stakeholders continue discussions with FAA officials as to the final composition of the list.
  • The FAA anticipates a denigrated ability to provide upkeep on its facilities and services, including, as just one example, navigational aids (NAVAIDs). It is generally assumed that preventative maintenance of some NAVAIDs may require much longer intervals, or if deemed not a high enough priority, may not be restored to service at all. 

As the FAA continues to consider responses to these and other sequester-related issues, NBAA will work with the agency and all other aviation stakeholders in a collaborative way to help ensure that the aviation system functions at an optimal level, and in an equitable manner, even under such a unique and challenging scenario.

Sequestration and NBAA Member Companies’ Operations: Commonly Asked Questions

The following are among the most common questions NBAA has received from Members regarding the sequester’s potential impact on their operations, along with the answers the Association is providing, given what is known at this time. It is important to note that this unique situation is still fluid and unfolding, so answers may evolve as more information becomes available. NBAA will continually update its Members on major developments about the sequester’s impact on aviation; for answers to questions as needed, NBAA Members can contact the Association’s Operations Service Group at (202) 783-9250, or ops@nbaa.org.

Q: Our company flies almost exclusively into reliever airports, like DuPage County Airport, Van Nuys Airport, Peachtree DeKalb Airport and Teterboro Airport – should we expect our flights to be delayed or otherwise impacted at airports like these?

A: No one, including the FAA, has a detailed understanding of how the sequester will impact operations at each airport. What we do know is that government officials have advised the public that the cuts to government staff as a result of the sequester could lead to delays for all types of aviation, so travelers using business aviation should be conservative in their planning, including the possibility that more time than usual could be required for a mission, possibly including at reliever airports.

Q: Our company sometimes needs to fly into metropolitan airports, like Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Kansas City International Airport or Lambert St. Louis Airport – can we expect delays or other types of impacts at the large airports?

A: While it is yet unclear what the impact of sequestration will be at the nation’s large airports, government officials have advised that any delays at those airports will impact both commercial and general aviation aircraft, including those used for business. That means, until further details are known, NBAA Members should be prepared for potential travel delays into or out of large airports, and assemble their plans accordingly.

Q: Our company’s flight operations manual mandates that the aircraft only utilize airports with control towers – how will these events impact that policy?

A: At this time, the specifics involving changes to tower operations at each of the nation’s airports are not clear; for example, a given tower might have adjustments in total staff on a given shift, or might be unstaffed –though the airport may still be accessible – only during periods of minimal use, such as late-night hours. In such scenarios, you may need to determine if the changes at a given tower will be such that the needs of your operations manual can still be accommodated. With that in mind, NBAA is advising Members that if the sequester does go into effect, it would be best to know about the specifics regarding tower operations at your particular destination airport as you begin planning your mission.

Q: Our company often flies internationally – if a government waiver is needed for an anticipated mission, will more processing time be required because fewer federal workers will be available to process it? Might the same delays occur with security processing conducted by Customs and Border Control?

A: Government officials are reporting that if the sequester does go into effect, one likely impact will be reductions in staff available for processing waiver requests, various approvals from the FAA’s Flight Standards District Offices, Customs inspections and paperwork, and other government functions. With that in mind, NBAA Members should be conservative in their mission planning, including readiness to make allowances for delays in government services.

Q: Our county airport's tower is in danger of being shut down. Can our company petition the local government to help fund the tower so that it will remain fully operational?

A: The FAA Administrator provided guidance last Tuesday to the rest of the Administration that this will be an acceptable solution. However, it will remain up to local authorities to determine the appropriateness of this solution on a case by base basis.