CONTACT: Sarah Dunn, 315-796-1560
WASHINGTON – National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi spoke today to members of the Aero Club of Washington about the devastating and potentially irreversible negative impacts sequestration will have on the nation’s aviation system and economy if Congress does not act to avert it.
Said Rinaldi: “As many of you know, our National Airspace System is built on redundancy. When funds and personnel are cut, layers of redundancy are eliminated, and layers of safety are slowly reduced… Let me be clear – making our national airspace the world’s safest and most efficient is the top priority for air traffic controllers and we will do everything in our power to maintain it moving forward. But the inescapable fact is this – continued budget uncertainty is not good for the long-term safety of the system.”
Rinaldi explained that the drastic cutbacks forced by sequestration will negatively impact every citizen in the country. Furloughs for air traffic controllers will result in fewer flights and increased delays, hurting all system users. Additionally, FAA and contract tower closures will greatly affect general aviation, rural communities, private enterprises and the nation’s military. He also suggested that in addition to the sequester, permanent reductions in discretionary spending are creating the very real possibility of a downsized FAA and consequently, a downsized national airspace.
“I don’t need to tell you that the system we all use and enjoy today is the result of years of planning and research,” Rinaldi said. “The current budgetary environment is putting the future safety and efficiency of the system at risk. As controllers we consider safety essential, and we believe the general public and all users of the airspace do too. So while we understand the need to reduce our nation’s debt, we feel strongly that compromising the safety and efficiency of the nation’s airspace is not the way to do it. No matter how you slice it, the current approach is potentially creating more problems than it is solving.”
In his remarks, Rinaldi described the preparations to implement the sequester as “frustrating.” He said, “No one believes it’s the most effective way to reduce federal spending. No one believes it will solve our nation’s fiscal problems. And yet, because our nation’s policy makers did not and cannot come up with a better approach, trained professionals will be forced to put aside their good work to implement an extremely short sighted policy.”
The full text of Rinaldi’s speech is below.
REMARKS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY
PAUL RINALDI, PRESIDENT
NATIONAL AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS ASSOCIATION
REMARKS TO THE AERO CLUB OF WASHINGTON
Feb. 27, 2013
Ladies and gentlemen, friends of aviation, thank you for the honor of this invitation. This is my first speech to the Aero Club and, I must say, it couldn’t come at a more important time for our industry and the dedicated people who make it work.
Every day, 20,000 diligent, hard-working men and women enter control towers and other FAA facilities and field offices across America to make sure the U.S. aviation system remains the safest, most efficient in the world. 15,000 air traffic controllers are at the heart of this operation, which, sadly, may soon begin to change for the worse. In just three days, automatic spending cuts – sequestration – will force drastic cutbacks in personnel at the FAA that will hurt everyone in this room, every passenger, every airfreight hauler and, indeed, every citizen in this country. These cutbacks would likely take place starting in April, just as the busy spring and summer travel seasons get underway. First, though, let me describe what we’ve built before I detail how it all will needlessly be diminished, perhaps irreparably, by sequestration.
Last year was the safest for air travel since 1945. In the U.S., in fact, the last ten years have been the safest in the hundred-plus-year history of aviation. The last fatal accident involving a commercial flight in the U.S. was four years ago. As the New York Times put it succinctly: “Flying on a commercial jetliner has never been safer.” There are lots of reasons for these facts and this trend. But one of the most evident is the consistency, the steadiness and the professionalism of air traffic controllers. Domestic and international aircraft and carriers flying the open skies has grown year after year, with 2012 including an increase in air traffic of more than five percent… and I am pleased to say that air traffic controllers have not only responded to the challenge, they have delivered. These superior standards and a recent increase in collaboration with our many partners in aviation have contributed to where we are today, with the best safety record in the world. I’d like to share with you now a video that demonstrates the work that goes into making it all happen.
(BREAK FOR VIDEO)
As you can see, we are a proud and hard-working group. And while there are many people in aviation to thank for helping to set the bar so high, including the airlines, the pilots and the good people at the Federal Aviation Administration, with whom NATCA works closely every day, no one can disagree that controllers are the foundation of this system. Our work to protect passengers in the skies and keep our nation’s vital aviation system moving has typically been considered essential in the face of a government shutdown. But in the case of sequestration, this work is not being prioritized as it should be and the consequences will affect us all.
The across-the-board cuts as currently envisioned by the federal government will affect every line in the FAA’s budget. Agencies have very limited, if any discretion with these cuts. This translates into cutting almost $483 million from the FAA’s operations, which includes the controller workforce and an additional $127 million from Facilities and Equipment, which maintains towers and tools such as navigation beacons. Cuts of this magnitude cannot be implemented without a significant impact on operations and capacity. Sequestration will reduce the capacity of the National Airspace System, period. It will negatively affect not just the flying public but military operations and the U.S. economy in countless ways. Slashing the operations budget by the mandated 5.1 percent during the compressed timeframe of March to the end of September means cuts will have to be implemented in areas where short-term savings can be found. That means FAA employees, including air traffic controllers, safety inspectors, and other safety professionals, will face furloughs. Secretary LaHood and Administrator Huerta say it will be between 11 and 22 days for each employee through September. With just 12,700 fully certified air traffic controllers in the FAA workforce, furloughing them for 10 percent or more of their working hours will strain a system where every minute means dollars for our nation’s economy. Safety, which is always our top priority, will not be compromised, but our capacity will be reduced.
Such reductions could mean that service would be unavailable for general aviation and military exercises. They could also mean a reduction in services for airlines, commercial interests, and private pilots who rely on towers at smaller airports and for secondary services like pilot training. If they proceed, these indiscriminate cuts will ultimately result in fewer flights and increased delays, creating a ripple effect that will hurt airlines, pilots, flight attendants, private aviators, airport employees, passengers, and the many businesses, large and small, that depend on a vibrant aviation sector to survive and thrive. Secretary LaHood predicts delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours at major airports. But I fear it would be much worse. We’ve looked at Atlanta. Furloughs there means they couldn’t run triple arrivals. That means 25-30 fewer planes landing per hour, every hour. The ripple effect would be significant.
Corporations that depend on air services to transport their goods will undoubtedly suffer costly delays. This is a trickle-down economics – in reverse. The negative effects on the aviation system made under sequestration could become permanent or be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse once they have taken effect. As sequestration cuts and other reductions in federal spending continue beyond FY 2013 the implications of the cuts will result in a weaker National Airspace System that looks and performs very differently from the safe and efficient model that exists today.
The mandatory furloughs are particularly troubling because they will occur at a time when the federal air traffic control system is in a state of transition. Over the next ten years, the FAA estimates that more than 12,100 controllers will leave the workforce due to normal attrition and retirement. History and experience dictate that an attrition rate so high can have serious consequences for the National Airspace System. Between September 2006 and July 2008, 3,312 controllers left the FAA. This mass exodus of controllers left the system staffed at only 71 percent of the acceptable level with the lowest number of certified professional controllers in 16 years. Understaffing caused a significant increase in controller workload and a subsequent need to increase the use of overtime. This resulted in a dangerous and unsustainable increase in controller fatigue and a too-heavy reliance on trainees to control traffic, which resulted in delays and a slowing down of the training process.
Vital lessons were learned from those mistakes and work is now underway to ensure that they will not be repeated.
But even with these preparations, dramatic controller departures are likely at the nation’s busiest airport hubs. Training their replacements at such complex facilities would take years to complete.
With the many retirements, coupled with potential furloughs, regions such as New York, Atlanta, and Chicago could be significantly affected. Hundreds of controllers will be eligible to retire at these facilities, and beginning in January 2014, the number increases even more. At the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center, for example, a quarter of that location’s workforce could walk out the door on this coming January 1st. It takes three years to train a new controller to work in such complex airspace. If these controllers retire, the FAA would be faced with a nearly insurmountable loss of controllers and, at the same time, be hard-pressed to train replacements quickly enough to keep pace.
Another victim of sequester could be more than 100 FAA and contract towers throughout the country. The FAA last Friday released a list of towers that could be closed. This has far-reaching consequences. Concord, North Carolina, is on the list. That’s the home of NASCAR. With racing season now underway, the job and dollar-loss ramifications of reduced or eliminated flight options are far-reaching. Wittman Regional Tower is on the list. That will get EAA’s attention. New Orleans Lakefront Airport looked like the beltway at rush hour during Super Bowl weekend earlier this month. Heroic work by the controllers. Their tower is also on this list.
These closures would greatly affect general aviation, as well as the often rural communities that depend on the services provided. Even temporary closures would result in severe cutbacks. Workloads would increase dramatically for FAA facilities just as those facilities will be facing reduced staffing due to sequestration. These developments would have a significant negative impact on the safety and efficiency of the system nationwide.
These towers also provide crucial support to our nation’s military and private enterprises. Take the tower at Lone Star Executive Airport in Houston, home of one of only two Apache helicopter maintenance units in the country. In Kinston, North Carolina, the airport handles traffic from many companies, as well as Air Force, Marine, Coast Guard, and Forestry Service aircraft. It also has an 11,500 foot runway that can be used by the Presidential fleet, including Air Force One. And Kissimmee Airport near Walt Disney World is quite a story. Since the tower opened in 1997, traffic has grown from 58,000 operations annually to 128,000. That’s big business for the area. An economic engine running smoothly. But what happens next if the tower closes?
No service means the system will be severely compromised.
And this is just part of the bigger picture. Airlines and air freight companies, which already are struggling to be profitable, will suffer as a result. And so will almost everyone else. As the people in this room know very well, the U.S. economy is anchored by aviation - it drives nearly 10 million jobs that contribute $1.3 trillion to the gross domestic product. Two million passengers fly on 70,000 routes every single day.
It’s important to point out that how the FAA reaches the required budget reductions is its call, not ours. FAA officials have told us that furloughs and tower closures are necessary to achieve the cuts mandated by the law. We want Congress and the public to understand that these furloughs and tower closures will potentially have extremely negative effects on our nation's air traffic control system and economy.
Sequestration comes at a time when efforts to modernize the air traffic control system, which are essential for continued competitiveness, are finally making real progress. The looming cuts could force the delay or shuttering of significant modernization projects at a time when the FAA, NATCA, and the aviation industry which have been building on our recent collaborations can least afford it.
One collaborative NextGen project showing particular progress is OAPM, which is a joint effort by the FAA and aviation industry aimed at integrating airspace and de-conflicting traffic flows over major metropolitan areas. Essentially, study teams determine how to efficiently run the airspace to increase efficiency. Early returns in the Washington, D.C., area indicate substantial fuel savings and reduced carbon emissions. If sequestration cuts take place, all OAPM study teams may be stopped, and OAPM’s success would not be applied in other test sites until the teams were reinstated.
It’s situations like these that make sequestration so frustrating. No one believes it’s the most effective way to reduce federal spending. No one believes it will solve our nation’s fiscal problems. And yet, because our nation’s policy makers did not and cannot come up with a better approach, trained-and-true professionals will be forced to put aside the good work to implement an extremely short-sighted policy.
What I have just described is what the aviation community faces in the next seven months. This is just the beginning of the challenges we face. In addition to the sequester, the permanent reductions in discretionary spending are creating the very real possibility of a downsized FAA and, consequently, a downsized national airspace. That is not a good thing. I have already outlined the implications for the controller workforce. As many of you know, our National Airspace System is built on redundancy. When funds and personnel are cut, layers of redundancy are eliminated, and layers of safety are slowly reduced. For example, continued budget cuts will likely mean the FAA will have to shut down some navigational aids and scale back the maintenance of others due to reduced funding. Reductions in the hours of operation of FAA facilities and the possible closure of towers could mean pilots flying into and out of uncontrolled airports, which introduces added safety risk factors.
Let me be clear – making our national airspace the world’s safest and most efficient is the top priority of air traffic controllers and we will do everything in our power to maintain it moving forward. But the inescapable fact is this: continued budget uncertainty is not good for the long-term safety of the system. I don’t need to tell all you that the system we all use and enjoy today is the result of years of planning and research. The current budgetary environment is putting the future safety and efficiency of the system at risk. As controllers, we consider safety essential. We believe the general public and all users of the airspace do too. So while we understand the need to reduce our nation’s debt, we feel strongly that compromising the safety and efficiency of the nation’s airspace is not the way to do it. No matter how you slice it, the current approach is potentially creating more problems than it is solving.
Of course, when you’re an air traffic controller, you have to solve problems every day. It’s the nature of the job. That’s just what happened last April in St. Louis, Missouri. The weather was so bad at the St. Louis airport that an F18 had to be redirected to nearby Scott Air Force Base. But the weather got even worse and communications with the fighter jet were lost and the pilot missed his approach. By the time communications were reestablished, the pilot had to declare a fuel emergency. That meant, unfortunately, that the plane had to climb steeply so it could use less fuel at the higher altitude – a dangerous maneuver in busy airspace. But two steady controllers – Kevin Cook and Steve Clark – took, well, control. They worked in seamless tandem to clear airspace for the stricken craft. Despite spotty communications, the plane eventually landed safely at the base. The alternative was the Mississippi River. Cook and Clark not only saved a life that day, they saved American taxpayers the expense of replacing an F18!
None of us should ever forget – or take for granted – the everyday heroism of air traffic controllers and other aviation professionals like Kevin Cook and Steve Clark. The sequester, however, comes very close to doing just that. It would significantly and perhaps permanently undermine the capacity of the system. Our entire nation will suffer as a result. We can’t let this happen. Thank you.