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Airports ready for travel bumps

Gird for fewer workers, fewer flights if sequestration hits

- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2013

Security lines to the skycap, double the wait time, fewer flights -- and that will be on a good day.

Virginia lawmakers and air travel officials on Monday warned of long lines and even longer delays if looming federal spending cuts are not avoided.

Standing in the sunny terminal of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Rep. James P. Moran Jr., whose district includes the airport, said that the cuts, known as sequestration, "will not just impact federal employees, it will be felt at airports all across the country."

"Every American that flies for business or vacation will be impacted," he said, the hum of escalators and patter of the occasional traveler barely heard in the cavernous terminal. "Right now, this airport looks relatively calm. Passengers are getting their tickets, the security lines are moving. After Friday this scene could look very different."

Sequestration, set to kick in Friday, will cut $600 million from the Federal Aviation Administration's operations, and facilities and equipment accounts, officials said. The cuts would trigger up to 11 furlough days for all FAA employees, a reduction in flights, furloughs for more than 2,000 air traffic controllers, and some 50,000 Transportation Security Administration employees would face up to a week of furlough days.

The predictions shared by officials at the airport echoed the recent comments of outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who discussed the potential furloughs and the effects of the cuts on the airline industry on several talks shows Sunday.

"It requires us, as painful as it is, to furlough the people that we're going to have to furlough. And we're taking it very seriously," Mr. LaHood said on CNN's "State of the Union."

But some skeptics have suggested that the Obama administration is playing politics by setting forth overly dire predictions. Mr. LaHood during the CNN appearance conceded that the FAA's budget had gone up by nearly half, while domestic flights had dropped by nearly a third of pre-Sept. 11, 2001, figures.

Asked Monday why furloughs were necessary when the projected $600 million in cuts amounts to roughly 4 percent of the FAA's $15 billion budget, Mr. Moran blamed the concentration of cuts on "discretionary programs."

"They're also being squeezed into a seven-month period out of the fiscal year," he added. "If you had 12 months in which to spread them out, had the ability to identify which programs are a higher priority than others, if you didn't have to cut every program, project and activity equally, and if you could deal with the entire federal budget, the effect would not be anywhere near as severe."

Officials at the news conference -- attended by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly and Sen. Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats -- said they anticipate the effects could be felt by travelers as early as April 1 and have been warning for weeks that the cuts would not just impact federal employees.

"This industry is going to be hit very hard by sequestration," Mr. Connolly said. "There are going to be real consequences for anybody who travels in America, anyone who comes into a port in America, and for people who screen us to make sure we're safe when we get on that airplane."

While efficiency might suffer, safety and security would remain at the same level, officials said -- though it would require some sacrifice.

"The only way we will maintain the current level of safety is if we turn down the volume of air traffic," said Capt. Sean Cassidy, first vice president for the Air Line Pilots Association, International. "Sequestration will also translate to ground delays and large slowdowns in major cities.

Richard Casey, vice president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, warned that the "indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts," would mean fewer plane inspectors, delays in equipment repairs, and changes to flight schedules.

"We all rely on flights to be available when we need them, for the system to function as promised," Mr. Casey said. "The sequestration will tie the hands of the safest, most efficient aviation system in the world."

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