ACROSS-THE-BOARD federal spending cuts — “sequestration” — have started to impinge on air transportation. Furloughs to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air-traffic controllers, which the Obama administration says are legally unavoidable, began Sunday, causing flight delays. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that the relatively modest impact so far is just the “first taste of the pain of sequestration.”
Mr. Reid’s remark was part of a Democratic effort to highlight sequestration-related travail and blame it on Republicans, who refused any budget deal with President Obama that would have increased revenue. The Democrats are right that sequestration is counterproductive and that Republicans could have helped avoid it.
But it does not follow that the air-traffic crunch can be fixed only by eliminating sequestration, as Mr. Reid argued. “We cannot and should not only address the FAA cuts,” he said. “We cannot ignore the sequestration’s overall effect on Americans.” White House spokesman Jay Carney chimed in with the demand that Republicans either support another short-term tax and spending measure to postpone the sequester “or take up the president’s balanced approach to broader deficit reduction that would eliminate the sequester entirely.”
Actually, if the air-traffic furloughs pose both a big inconvenience and a short-term danger to the U.S. economy — and they do — it would be irresponsible to let them go on until an unlikely grand bargain is struck, or even to use them as political leverage to achieve one. Mr. Reid is not a powerless bystander; he should work with the White House and Republicans to help the FAA offset the furloughs, which account for $160 million of the $637 million FAA sequester. That’s not small change, but surely it could be scrounged out of the Transportation Department’s $70 billion budget, given appropriate legislation.
Meanwhile, the airline industry is challenging the Obama administration’s implementation of the furloughs. In a lawsuit filed at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the airlines argue, plausibly, that the FAA could have carried out the furloughs with far less impact on air travelers, even if the sequestration law gave it no choice whether to impose them.
Specifically, the lawsuit notes that the FAA opted to cut hours 10 percent for all controllers, at all facilities — whether Los Angeles International or Teterboro, N.J. The airlines insist that there would be fewer delays if the FAA furloughed more controllers where there’s less traffic and vice versa. The FAA’s approach “exacerbates sequester-related disruption rather than minimizing it,” their lawsuit says.
It’s a strong charge, in response to which the FAA told us not that it had no choice in the matter but instead that it “cannot be in the business of picking winners and losers among airlines, hubs, airports or geographic locations.” The FAA’s plan did reflect concern for one group — the controllers’ union, which sought and obtained a written guarantee that furloughs would be distributed equally across its membership, according to the union.
That might be an optimal solution for this undoubtedly dedicated federal workforce. Now someone should act on behalf of the traveling public.