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Much of the alarm over the deep federal budget cuts that could happen in January is focusing on the Washington region's defense contractors. But airports around D.C. could also be affected under this "sequestration" — the word for the across-the-board spending reductions.
The FAA faces a $1 billion cut from its $15.9 billion budget if Congress cannot reach a deal on long-term deficit reduction by the end of the year. Area residents could be left with fewer flights and longer delays at D.C. area airports if the cuts take effect, according representatives of the aerospace industry.
“It would be between 1,200 and 1,500 controllers that would be laid off. There would be the closing of some towers,” says Marion Blakey, a former FAA administrator and the head of the Arlington-based Aerospace Industries Association, a group that lobbies for the manufacturer and suppliers of aircraft.
While the safety of air travelers would be protected, service at airports would suffer with fewer possible flights and longer lines to get through security, says Blakey.
“The estimate is there will be 9,000 fewer TSA inspectors on the job,” she says. “If you are traveling, you know how long the lines are now. Think about them being that much longer because you have fewer people screening.”
Economic impacts on airports loom
The region’s economy would also take a hit, according to a report released by the Blakey’s group.
“An airport like BWI (Baltimore Washington International) generates over $5 billion in economic activity for the state of Maryland,” she says. “You are going to lose some of that under this situation.”
Todd Hauptli at the American Association of Airport Executives, an Alexandria-based group that lobbies for airport managers and operators, has also looked at the potential economic impacts of sequestration.
“The airlines may change their frequencies. They may be forced to change their routes. These are unknowns at this point,” he says. Hauptli believes if it goes into effect, the sequestration period will be short because it will force lawmakers’ hands to find a solution.
“I don’t think the American people will end up being very patient and I think Congress will be forced to act,” he says.
Navigation modernization could stall
One place the FAA could cut from is its ongoing endeavor to complete a satellite-based navigation system designed to improve the efficiency of airports, known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen.
“Sequestration could deal a real body blow to NextGen, because when you are trying to find money in a reduced budget, you tend to go to … the new developments because you have to keep the current operations,” said Blakey, who helped launch the project while at the FAA.
The Obama Administration has not yet released details plans for implementing the sequestered cuts, meaning the potential impacts on airports and air travel remain to be seen. Congress could pass legislation to defer or prevent sequestration from taking effect.