Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sequestration

To add to a long list of things I really don't want to have to deal with in my life right now, we add sequestration. Now I'm sure that most of you have heard this word coined in the mass media as of late. You might even have been given a passable explanation of exactly what it is. Increasingly though I see the comments on the news websites and even some lawmakers voicing in favor of the sequester. Now, never mind that sequestration was supposed to be a doomsday scenario to force the Democrats and Republicans to the table, but the sheer audacity and willingness to cripple our government over the inability to make a plan for the future is just absurd. I've begun to think that there is a possibility the average American really doesn't understand the implications of what will happen on March 1st if the sequester does go into effect. Let me give you a summary of the consequences as they would affect you, the American air traveler, should the FAA suddenly lose over 5% of its operating budget, and have to come up with $484 million before September.

First a bit of a background, in the good name of honesty. I have a bachelor's of science in Air Traffic Management. I studied air traffic control, aviation safety, and human factors in aviation while in school. I have been an air traffic controller for over 3 years.

The most prominent point of discussion in the FAA right now is the unfortunate business of furloughs. This has happened before for what we call "non-operational" staff back when congress wouldn't approve the FAA Reathorization. These are office workers, technical operations staff, etc. Air traffic controllers are operational, they are considered by the government to be critical staffing positions. This is good, because we are usually understaffed as it is, and trying to train new hires at the same time. Should sequestration go through, in order to make up for the budget shortfalls, the FAA will have to furlough controllers. It comes down to only 11 days until September, assuming no agreement is come to, but that's one more controller we're missing each pay period, and we're already getting calls every weekend for overtime shifts.

In order to accommodate this new staffing shortfall, the FAA will immediately cancel all of our scheduled annual leave. We bid our days off in October each year for the following year. It is expected that many of the senior controllers that are eligible to retire will submit their paperwork and go. This will lead to an attrition in the ranks of our most experienced staff. Meanwhile, all hiring will be frozen, so we will not be able to train up new controllers to fill the gaps. Should the problem of retirements become too severe, the FAA will initiate "stop loss". This effectively stops eligible employees from retiring until they reach the mandatory age of 55. Imagine saving up for retirement and after 25 years of service they tell you you don't get to leave when you want to, only when they say so.

All pay benefits will disappear. The extra income we earn for working on Sundays, at night, training, taking on supervisory responsibilities, none of it will be on our paychecks. We're being told its going to  basically be a 10% pay cut over night. Not exactly big news for air travelers but try to remember, there's families with commitments like mortgages and putting kids through school. Morale is important, and there won't be much starting in March if this happens.

There's much more. Almost every program to update our national air system will be shelved. Programs like Nextgen and STARS upgrades will fall by the wayside. These are programs we desperately need, much of our current systems are decades old at this point.

With technical operations staff on furlough we will have fewer people to fix our systems, and fewer spare parts to even fix them with. Non-essential systems might not be repaired at all.

Did you hear about that controller that fell asleep on the mid shift? If you thought that was terrible, just wait until 76 control facilities in the US have NO controllers on the mid shift anymore because we can't afford it.

I'm only scratching the surface here because I only know so much at this point. The real pains will show themselves should the sequester happen, but what does this mean so far? What it means is overnight, the nation with the best air traffic control system in the world, and the best safety record in the world for at least the last 12 years, is going to severely handicap its ATC network. Will safety be at risk? I hope not, but to make up for whats coming many people are going to have to work to the bone to try to and keep things running smoothly. There will be delays, there might be incidents, you can't expect these things not to happen when you put money over risk management. We have a large workforce of young controllers that are going to find themselves having to make up for the sudden loss in experience. If there is one place we should not allow such severe cuts to happen it has to be in the FAA. There is far too much at risk to do so otherwise.

The FAA can stand to cut its own budget, although we've been shoe-stringing it lately while still trying to get our systems back up to date. But what is needed carefully planned and implemented cuts, just like what should be instituted for the rest of the government agencies. Sequestration does not care, it just cuts, immediately and deeply. Aviation safety does not factor in to what sequestration accomplishes. So before you read that CNN article and just wave off sequestration as something that won't really affect you, stop and think about what the government really does for you on a daily basis. There are somewhere around 30,000 commercial flights every day in the United States. Is that many lives really worth not being able to come to an agreement on not whats best for the party, but whats best for the country?