On the FAA and the sequester, from Air Genius Gary Leff

Of course the FAA budget goes up year-over-year (in nominal terms) even under the sequester, and air traffic control is handling 27% fewer departures than prior to 9/11 with a budget that’s 41% higher (again, nominal $).  And that’s aside from actually probably being able to make some cuts without noticeable service effects, even before having to put off capital investment in future air traffic control improvements.

That is from an email.  There is more from Gary here, including this:

Lots of commenters argued that I must simply not understand the sequester, that the money has to be taken proportionally from each program / project / activity. I pointed out that these things are not at all defined in the statute, and it was still up to the Administration then to choose what that would mean for implementation.

Comments

FAA's baseline budget for 2009-2012 was inflated by new work rules that funnelled an extra $669 million to the air traffic controllers union, according to DOT's inspector general. http://www.oig.dot.gov/sites/dot/files/FAA%20NATCA%20CBA.pdf

The work rules are designed to be as inefficient as possible, to maximize income for the controllers. They probably can't be undone by budget cuts. That's why the FAA cannot look for efficiency savings, even if it wanted to, which it does not.

What you call efficiency, others call death and destruction, threat and reality.

I thought do-gooders always thought we could do-better. Why give up before even starting? Sometimes hyperbole makes a point, but it doesn't in this case.

Really, death and destruction?In any realistic sense is a change in work rules to the pre-2009 level going to cause, "death and destruction". Is a 4% budget cut really going to cut the FAA to the 'bone'? I'm pretty dubious of such rhetoric.

Inflated means making controllers whole because preceding 2009 was a long term controller pay freeze and two-tiered pay structure all while W grew the domestic discretionary budget.

I assume anyone who uses nominal dollars when comparing cost from different years is trying to mislead their readers.

Agreed, that's just lazy.

It is still an increase in real terms, it is easy enough to check that yourself, and Gary notes up front it is nominal dollars. Not everyone out there is writing for economists. You two should find better things to complain about.

Easy enough to check for yourself? Seems easy enough to just write it in the post then.

Indeed. In the future, please add a toggle allowing any charts to be converted to constant dollars. Also, per capita and % of GDP toggles would be helpful. And cross-country comparisons, please, both nominal and PPP. Thank you.

"27% fewer departures" ? Bureau of Transportation Statistics data shows that total revenue departures for 2011 surpassed 2001 level. I think he included GA operations in his figure, so it would make sense for the FAA to shutdown down the airports serving those types of operations.

'Remember to check any and all information presented here - we don't, so don't complain about needing to' is not exactly a catchy slogan. Though with a bit of polish, maybe it could be used for MRU.

Even comparing budgets in real dollars is potentially misleading. The things that matter from the perspective of a user of the NAS is the number of air traffic controllers on duty, the quality of the equipment and systems they have to support them, and so on. The salaries of controllers can change for a whole plethora of reasons unrelated to inflation, so simply taking nominal budgets and applying a deflator doesn't tell you much of anything about the level of service being provided. To figure that out, you have to spend a little time actually learning what the agency does and how it does it.

Ok, so the budget is 12.75B and what would the deflator be, 2%?. Now I have reduced their budget by $255 M. Disaster!

This comment is an example of why I have a problem with using nominal numbers, inflation since 2001 is about 30%.

Wait a minute. There isn't any inflation, right? What's wrong with nominal dollars?

The issue at hand is the year over year numbers. The bigger question is why the budget has gone up by 40% since 2001 (roughly 8% in real terms) while traffic is down. One would also expect efficiency improvements.

Your problem is with facts, not inflation.

I just assume anyone who doesn't actually read the article (indeed, even the quote from the article) is trying to mislead themselves.

well played.

Don't rule out laziness.

I notice you didn't adjust the numbers either. He indicated they were nominal dollars. It's an email to Tyler, not a WSJ article.

"Lots of commenters argued that I must simply not understand the sequester, that the money has to be taken proportionally from each program / project / activity. I pointed out that these things are not at all defined in the statute, and it was still up to the Administration then to choose what that would mean for implementation." - what was the planning budget? I would be all for more refined cuts, but as I understand it, any resources put toward planning the cut come from pre-cut budget and only make things worse. You have less remaining budget to apply to remaining programs. The deeper, the finer you go, with lower level management taking part, the greater the "cost of reduction" effect.

That's a winning argument right there. Trot that one out for public consumption. It'll go great with the "I filed for bankruptcy because setting a budget took up too much valuable time" argument.

I think senator gramm explained this better is the WSJ: because the government is operating under a CR not a budget the sequester rules give the president nearly complete freedom to position the cuts in as he sees fit up tp some absurdly generous limit such not moving funds between cabinet agencies.

Sure, but to reinforce my "cost of planning" comment ... the president might have nearly complete freedom ... but he can't lay out the budget of every department on his office floor, and do it all in an afternoon. The better the re-allocation, the more time and resources required.

Are you telling us Obama has to hire staff and facilities to make a plan. Seriously?

Be serious, we are talking about pulling resources from mission, not new hires. Thin NASA and planning money (re)spent (re)planning.

Are you seriously telling me that the executive branch has no one dedicated to budget issues already?

You are asking for more than the ordinary. News today was that "NASA's Sequester Plan Targets Private Space Taxi Funds and Tech." You want Obama to be the decider on such things, and many more, at no cost, and in no time. Be serious.

You are dense. The executive branch agencies have personnel in every agency dedicated to accounting and budgeting processes. It is nothing out of the ordinary to adjust budgets on fly during the fiscal year. I am not asking Obama to decide anything- I assume he will delegate the responsibilities down the chain of command, at least he will if he doesn't have some sort of political agenda he wishes to enforce.

Yes, he would have to do it all by himself in an afternoon, because no one had any idea that this might occur.

Does that reduction to absurdity really achieve what you want it to? If the sequester was only possible, how much should have been pre-spent on planning? Once it is happening, how detailed should the planning be? Send the top 500 planners from across departments to a retreat and work up a new allocation? There is risk and expense in that. Tell each department head to make their own choices? There is cost in those session, but also political risk, as any head's choice can become "Obama's" screw up.

So, as I see it the uniform cuts have least downsides for the President. Low cost of implementation, and a political risk that can just be ascribed to the opposition.

Have you any experience in the Federal government? You don't seem to have any idea how it works. Departmental budget-cutting drills on the order of 5-10% are completely routine, though they are typically driven by leadership decisions to spend money on other projects rather than to achieve a smaller overall budget. For instance, when the DoD started throwing huge gobs of money at the MRAP program during the Iraq War, that was an unplanned expense and the money to pay for all those MRAPs came from the budgets of other DoD programs. The idea that you'd need to assemble the 500 brightest minds in the Federal government at a retreat somewhere to do a 10% budget cut drill is completely laughable.

The White House first floated $50B as the cost of the Iraq war. You think you see some mythical 10% reduction as that over-ran to the trillions. Who is being serious here?

It sounds like a government-as-family fallacy writ large. All the government needs to do to save a few buck is cut out Starbucks in the morning.

I said the MRAP program was funded from cuts on other DoD programs, not the entire Iraq War. And it was just one example from my time as a DoD program manager, believe me there were many others. The point is that DoD program managers are regularly tasked to rack and stack their requirements for agency, service or departmental rebudgeting initiatives.

It was really a mistake to name fiscal prudence in the Iraq war as your example. There were hundreds of billions sloshing one way or another ... no one knew what was going on because cost control was not an issue. I'm sure your savings were entirely notional. Obviously given the gross ramp-up of spending overall.

I never said the Iraq War was fiscally prudent. Merely that the government already has a process by which spending can be reduced in a targeted manner, if it chooses to do so. No need to send 500 super-genius planners to Camp David.

Do you have a better example then? A branch of government that efficiently "cut" spending while actually reducing spending?

From a process perspective, there's no difference between a department head telling his staff to identify a billion dollars in cuts because he wants to spend it on Project X and a department head telling his staff to identify a billion dollars in cuts because of the sequester. It's exactly the same.

You came in above to support the idea that a White House led effort could easily drill down to such things. The off-hand idea that "a department head [can tell] his staff to identify a billion dollars in cuts" does not really support that. That is not a top down effort. It is a wing and a prayer idea that someone, somewhere deep in government, will make appropriate trade-offs autonomously.

BTW, note that if you press delegation all the way down, you get what we have - across the board cuts hitting every deep level of government equally, and them all scrambling.

John,

Good job, never let evidence get in the way of your bias. If you can't imagine it, it must not be possible! Forget anyone who says they have first-hand experience otherwise.

Hell, as a complete fresh-out getting engineering lead training at Boeing they beat the drum that you_always_ had to have a plan for budget -10% and +10%.
Which is to say, when your boss comes to you and says "I'm taking an FTE", you say "Great to know, please understand that we're no longer doing project X".
If he was serious, that was that. If he wasn't (or he was being evaluated on the success of project X), you got to keep your FTE.

Also note that the accounting systems, human and automated, may simply not allow whole classes of "good cuts" on they fly. Work hours may be cut in many cases simply because that is what the systems allow.

What makes you think they want "good cuts"? They want the worst cuts possible -- the ones that impact the public the most -- on the assumption the Republicans will take 100% of the blame. That's why instead of reducing bloated administration staff at the National Zoo, they decided they couldn't afford to maintain the locks on the lion and tiger cages.

I betcha that Tyler would agree with me that 100% bad (or good) cuts are both foolish answers.

Easy enough to ask the department heads (e.g. the agriculture secretary) to come up with suggestions for the least damaging cuts -- probably not starting with cutting USDA food inspectors (which the department is under legal obligation to provide). There's been plenty of time to do that.

This is why it's so easy to look at this whole sequestration as so much theatre. If they had really wanted cuts as a threat when they set up the sequestration, they would have cut congressional salaries.

I imagine that behind the scenes department heads are doing the best they can, but when you talk about them communicating back possible cuts, with some weighting of unpleasantness, to the White House ... you kind of need that planning retreat to sort it out. Dept A says his cuts hurt too much, so does Dept B, etc.

A CR means government is operating under a budget.

Just because your car became 5 years old instead of 4 years old does not mean it is no longer a car.

In most of US history, there was no budget, or a budget was for two years.

And it is basically the conservatives who have demanded what are now ten year budgets. Of course, spending for most of the ten year budget is authorized for less than a year in almost every case - the spending bills authorizing spending only until Oct 1, unless extending past spending for 30 or 60 days past the existing spending authority date, and amount.

Taxing authority law is perpetual, except for the authority to collect less in taxes - Republicans have most often written tax bills that reduce taxes only for a year (AMT) or a decade (Bush tax cuts). I can't think of a single tax that expired in my lifetime - the Vietnam war tax was a surcharge that was to apply for two years, but it was changed by Congress when Nixon became president to cut it or eliminate it before it would expire by law.

And a "budget" bill provides no power to spend or tax,but instead defines the specific spending bills to authorize spending, and lists the tax law bills to change taxes. To think Congress has operated differently than most of its members or citizens is folly - most people spend money they have and don't have but think they will get, often spending money they think they will get multiple times. From 2001-2006, the Republicans were spending the Clinton budget surpluses repeatedly, on top of the increased tax revenue that the Bush tax cuts were going to produce.

Mulp: go read or retread Gramm: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323384604578327792209356054.html

That's an excellent editorial by Phil Gramm. I had no idea that the numbers for the current sequester were so close to the 1985 sequester.

"The first Gramm-Rudman sequester took effect on March 1, 1986. It cut nondefense spending by 4.3% and defense spending by 4.9%.

The most recent estimate by the Congressional Budget Office for this year's sequester is that nondefense spending will be cut by 4.6% and defense spending will be cut by 7.9%."

Another illustration of Conquest's first law.

Do you suppose anyone knows the difference between fixed and marginal costs in this discussion. Assuming contracts with vendors to supply capital equipment are fixed, for example, by contract, or that certain personnel costs are fixed if you want to run a landing tower without accidents, you might find a small portion of your budget is actually open to cuts, or, if they are, cuts in them reduces efficiency of the network or system in this or future periods.

Instead, I would begin charging all sorts of landing fees, finding ways to reduce subsidies by charging for services, etc. you could even privatize a service currently provided by the FAA and let the private party raise the fee....

Now is the time for the gov to charge for the true cost of water, grazing rights, mineral leases, crop insurance, etc.

There are no legal penalties "enforcing" specific cuts under this Sequestration. No personal fines, firings, impeachments, nor jail for government administrators (from President & Congress on down) who fail to implement the hazy details of Sequestration. Divining the 'details' of Sequestration (..for FAA or the other calcified bureaucracies) is a laughable exercise

Congress has not passed a budget in 4 years though legally required to do so. But no Congressman has suffered any penalty nor has Congress as a body suffered any specific penalty (.. like a pay cut). Laws are for the little people.

This Sequestration is a meaningless internal maneuver by a dysfunctional group of unaccountable government
ministers. The American Public should ignore it completely... there is hope, but not for us.

No budget bill as required by the budget control act, authorizes any spending. It merely lists the spending authority bills, and new tax authority bills, that are required, the target amounts for each, and which of those bills are covered by special procedural rules that give the committee bills up or down votes with limited debate.

So, budget bills have nothing to do with taxing or spending AUTHORITY.

It was the 2010 budget bill that allowed the second bill creating Obamacare to be passed by up or down votes in the House and Senate without amendment and limited debate, because it listed two spending bills out of a half dozen as subject to special reconciliation. And budget bills are not laws - they are not signed by the president, but are rules of Congress: budget resolutions.

And the conclusion is?

Not to put words in mulp's mouth, but presumably his conclusion is that all the "Congress hasn't passed a budget in 4 years" squawking is a red herring that is cynically designed to take advantage of the public's confusion over the distinction between an appropriations bill and a budget resolution. It's not surprising that this abstruse point is lost on the average voter, but I'm frankly astonished at how often it seems to elude people who spend their time reading and commenting on blog posts on the subject. I can't help thinking that we're seeing a bit of what Mark Twain referred to as "corn pone opinions."

Great link. Unsettling.

I just got my pilots license, so I have a little insight into this.

If there is a cut in ATC manpower, the first thing that will probably go are services ATC provides to pilots that are provided 'on a workload-permitting basis,' such as flight following for VFR pilots. (This is an optional service provided to pilots flying small general aviation aircraft using "visual flight rules", where ATC tracks and watches over them as they also watch over large commercial jets who generally fly IFR, "instrument flight rules.")

There may also be some tower closures; there are some airports which honestly don't have the traffic to justify having a manned tower keeping open until midnight.

--

As to the suggestion that we start charging landing fees, it's worth noting that at present there is a tax on aviation fuel that is supposed to help pay for this. The problem with charging landing fees or fees for ATC usage is that it will disproportionately fall on general aviation, made up in large part by small private pilots and pilots engaged in training activities. If I get charged $100 per landing, I may not go out and practice my landings by "staying in the pattern", an activity where I may practice 5 landings in a row in the course of an hour. (That's because this would effectively triple or quadruple the cost to rent an airplane for an hour and practice my landings.)

Further, the design of our airspace in theory allows me to fly from an uncontrolled airport to another uncontrolled airport without ever talking to an air traffic controller. But I talk to them because it makes everyone safer: they know who I am, and because I'm talking to them they can direct me as necessary to avoid larger commercial traffic. But if I'm charged $100 for keying the mike to talk to ATC--guess what? There will be one more "unknown" blip on the ATC's screen they're not talking to, and they can't ask me to get out of the way of a big airplane on a long final approach into Burbank, Bakersfield, Oakland or Santa Barbara. (This happened to me on a recent training flight to Bakersfield, by the way.)

It's one reason why the AOPA (the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) opposes user fees.

And from my perspective I'd rather see an extra 50 cents a gallon added to the cost of aviation fuel than see user fees imposed: user fees would decrease safety and decimate general aviation, an industry which is far stronger in the United States than it is in Canada or Europe, thanks in part to user fees.

I sympathize to some degree, but I routinely see small aviation listed as one of the larger expenses per user for Federal dollars. There are a lot of small airports that just cater to pretty well off locals. I find it hard to justify this kind of spending in a world of tight budgets.

here's a 70-page white house report to congress accompanying the sequestration cuts order and detailing the reductions they'll make, agency by agency and program by program:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/assets/legislative_reports/fy13ombjcsequestrationreport.pdf

The cover letter confirms what I expected from this gang. You want to cut spending,eh? You are going to suffer, suckas.

"air traffic control is handling 27% fewer departures than prior to 9/11 with a budget that’s 41% higher"

There were 15,233 controllers in 2001. There are 15,148 proposed in the FAA FY2013 budget request.

Air traffic control is not the FAA's only role so this is a dumb way to ask whether cost growth is reasonable. Additionally, you have trends like increased use of small airports (e.g. in the L.A., Reagan). I'm not very familiar with this stuff, but it seems possible that that change could simultaneously reduce the number of flights and increase demand for controllers.

May I ask the source of the 27% decline in workload statistic?

I call called the website below from the FAA and compared 2011 and 2000 numbers.

I compared airports in increments. The largest, 50th largest, 100th and 150th largest airports all showed increases. The largest airport increased passenger enplanments by about 13%, the 50th by about four percent, the 100th by 16% and the 150th by 15%. I realize that plane size probably increased so that may have affected the number departures and takeoffs. But I also bet cargo increased more than passenger traffic. I think if there was a 27% decline in takeoffs and arrivals we would have had to see a drop in passenger traffic.

http://www.faa.gov/airports/planning_capacity/passenger_allcargo_stats/passenger/media/cy11_primary_enplanements.pdf

+1.

MAD magazine has a slogan: "What? Me Worry?"

This site is earning the slogan: "What? No Facts?"

In addition, none of the comments above noted that some event happened in the fall of 2001 that might hav, just a little, changed the emphasis or duties of the agency, or that 2001 to 2008 was a period of Republican management. Of course, unadjusted in real terms.

Yes, a significant fraction (a few billion) of the FAA's budget is grants-in-aid to airports. Also, a lot is spent on safety and security programs in addition to the agencies air-traffic-control mandate. I can't find a comparable FY2001 budget, but I suspect that, post-9/11, grants to airports focused on upgraded security because of the threat of terrorists employing small planes. Also, the FAA presumably had a role in security with respect to pilot training.

I'm not an Air Genius, but in case he does not respond, I think he might be referring to the number of tower operations, which declined from 31.8 million in calendar year 2000 to 25.4 million in 2012. You can verify those numbers here: https://aspm.faa.gov/opsnet/sys/Tower.asp I couldn't find a prominent definition of "tower operations" but a footnote in this GAO report says it means takeoffs and landings. http://www.gao.gov/assets/130/121348.html The data might reflect a trend toward fewer flights in larger aircraft as a response to rising fuel costs, I don't know. I agree that the author should provide the source of surprising statistics instead of making us guess.

Those numbers seem about right for takeoffs plus landings, which are on the order of 100,000 per day. This number has declined in the past few years, but is expected to increase again as the decline owes more to economic factors (less travel, cargo and recreational flying in recession, fuel costs, consolidation, etc) than a decrease in long-term demand for commercial flights.

Gasoline prices were at incredible lows during 2001. I think the lowest inflation-adjusted level since the oil crisis. I paid less than $1/gallon routinely in Missouri. Of course, this doesn't directly translate to more flights given that airlines hedge fuel costs, etc. But the fact is that the inflation-adjusted fuel price is almost 150% higher today than in late 2001. This likely plays a role in reduced arrivals/departures and thus FAA workload. However, increasing fuel costs depressing what should be a natural rate of air travel growth isn't a trend that's expected to continue by anyone except peak oil folks.

There are some quasi-permanent changes associated with this decade (better teleconferencing = less business travel; better carrier IQ = fewer, fuller flights; higher security = less convenience depresses demand), but even being pretty naive on the topic I'd bet this so-called air genius that today's reduced arrivals/departure load is mostly a transient phenomenon. It could very well increase long-term FAA costs to fire ~25% of controllers only to have to retrain and rehire in a few years.

"May I ask the source of the 27% decline in workload statistic? " ... " I think if there was a 27% decline in takeoffs and arrivals we would have had to see a drop in passenger traffic"

Perhaps the FAA hired 50% more Controllers and air traffic went up 20%?

As a controller at 1 of the 168 towers slated to be closed, I can say that the added workload placed on the radar facility will decrease the efficiency of the National Airspace System. The 3 facilities in our area account for more than 200+ IFR Departure clearance and releases and 200+ IFR Arrivals per day and that is a large increase in work load for an overly taxed radar facility to take on.

Safety will be surely impacted as there will be no controllers in these towers to enhance a safe, orderly and efficient operation. There isn't a shift that goes by, where a controller in one of these facilities, doesn't take action to separate traffic in conflict, prevent an errant aircraft from entering a runway while another is landing or assisting an aircraft with an emergency (mechanical or medical). The question should not be if a disaster will occur but when it will?

Comments for this post are closed