The hysteria over possible air travel chaos starting this Friday if Congress and the White House fail to head off the imminent sequester—or mandatory, across-the-board federal budget cuts—really revved into high gear over the weekend. Leading the charge: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who predicted four-hour peak delays at JFK and other big hub airports, with some small airports even shutting down, if air traffic controllers are furloughed. Homeland Security officials warned about long backups at TSA and Customs checkpoints.
So should you rethink your spring vacation plans? Not yet. First off, even if a sequester officially takes effect March 1 (as many Washington insiders expect), the radical staffing cuts that are stoking the panic won’t materialize until April, since federal law requires that workers receive 30 days notice of impending furloughs.
Second, another deadline looming in late March—when the government is due to run out of money—is expected to prod the opposing sides into action, since the consequences of that happening are truly devastating.
What’s really going on here is that visions of airport meltdowns are an effective scare tactic. Certainly if the sequester continues beyond the first month, it could cause real damage to a whole host of programs ranging from food safety to Head Start, but it’s a bit harder to crank up the doomsday machinery on those fronts.
It's really too soon to say with any certainty exactly where fliers will feel the pain since this situation is unprecedented. But the DOT's scenario is admittedly extreme. Take just one point, the list of endangered 200 small airports the DOT has released, which includes many that have little or no scheduled commercial service; they are mainly "GA" or general aviation facilities used by private planes. One such facility is Boca Raton, Florida, which, while it serves a well-known resort area, is also close to big airports in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. That's not to say plently of people won't be inconvenienced, but Secretary La Hood couldn't have made his real motive more obvious when he predicted fliers would soon direct their rage at their local congressmen. "Their phones are going to start ringing," he said hopefully.
Finally some observers may question why the FAA or the TSA has to lay off people when they could save money by scrapping or postponing a costly acquisition, like, say, those full-body scanners that we'd hardly be sorry to lose. But it's not as simple as that. The sequester would force cuts to be made in each line item in an agency's budget, and that's the twisted logic of it—that this Draconian approach is so politically unpalatable, not to mention reckless, that it could never happen; in short, people would come to their senses.
Except this time they may not.
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