Va. congressional leaders warn of flight delays, long lines

February 25, 2013
Democratic leaders from Virginia including Reps. Gerry Connolly and Jim Moran and Sen. Tim Kaine at Reagan National Airport where they discussed the impact of sequestration on air travel.
Virginia Democratic leaders at Reagan National Airport, where they discussed the impact of sequestration on air travel.

With Reagan National Airport as a backdrop, Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine and Reps. Gerry Connolly and Jim Moran reiterated warnings Monday that travelers could face long delays and canceled flights, the result of automatic spending cuts tied to sequestration.

“Right now this airport is relatively calm,” Moran said. “People are getting their tickets.  They are moving through security lines. This scene could be very different in a few weeks.”

Moran said possible cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration tied to sequestration could mean fewer air controllers managing air traffic, translating to flight delays and cancellations. Similar reductions at the Transportation Security Administration could mean fewer security screeners — and longer lines.

The three lawmakers were joined by representatives from employee groups including unions representing pilots, security screeners and safety workers from the Federal Aviation Administration.  Geoff Freeman, COO of the U.S. Travel Association, was also on hand and said that his group has estimated that staff reductions associated with sequestration could cost 58,000 travel jobs and $1 billion in tax revenues.

The three legislators urged their Republican colleagues to come together and hash out a reasonable, balanced compromise.

“We can fix this,” Kaine said. “It doesn’t have to be this way. We need to embrace a reasonable path of deficit reduction.”

In recent days, Democrats and administration officials have seized on the specter of flight delays and long lines at airport security to rally public opinion and ratchet up pressure on Republicans to stave off the automatic cuts that would go into effect Friday. Last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appeared at a White House briefing where he warned the public of disruptions in air travel.

The latest push came after a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll, released last week, showed that most Americans have heard little to nothing about the potential cuts. Only 27 percent said they had heard “a lot” about them.

On Monday, though, it appeared that word of the sequester’s possible impact on air travel was beginning to spread among travelers.

Denise McChain of Woodbridge was worried about the impact the cuts would have on her ability to see her fiance, who lives in Wisconsin.

“I’m very concerned,” she said. “Are there going to be long waits? What’s going to happen to the poor folks who get furloughed?”

But others said they thought the rhetoric was overblown.

“Scare tactics,” said Edward Ayers, a consultant with Deloitte,  who was waiting at Reagan National for a flight home to Raleigh. “They have lots of choices. They’re just portraying the worst possible scenarios.”

The sequester was put into motion by the August 2011 debt-ceiling deal, but  since then, there has been little progress in negotiations to avert the cuts. Obama has proposed a mix of budget cuts and new revenue by closing corporate loopholes, but Republicans have said they will not raise taxes and instead have pushed to cut federal health spending.

Some Republican leaders have accused the administration of exaggerating the impact of the pending cuts.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.) and Reps. Bill Shuster (Pa.) and Frank A. LoBiondo (N.J.) — all leaders on transportation issues in Congress — said the  FAA is “well positioned to absorb spending reductions without compromising the safety or efficiency of the National Airspace System.”

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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Robert Thomson | February 25, 2013