Crippling air travel to score points

Tourist-oriented Las Vegas is so dependent on timely and efficient air travel that the current political Kabuki of “furloughed” air traffic controllers — causing frustrated travelers to sit for hours on runways in poorly ventilated aircraft — must go on the ironic list of this administrations “special favors” to this town.

Las Vegans still remember President Obama’s 2009 warning to federal contractors that “You can’t go take that trip to Las Vegas ... on the taxpayers’ dime,” followed by his advice a year later not to “blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college.”

Today, the big-spending administration’s political problem is that the public seems unimpressed with Mr. Obama’s two-month-old warnings that the recent federal-budget “sequester” cuts will somehow prove crippling.

What the administration wants is for Americans to bellow with pain, to insist that unsustainable spending levels be restored, and of course to blame Republicans — even though Mr. Obama proposed the sequester, and then allowed it to take effect by totally ignoring the recommendations of his own, bi-partisan, budget-cutting panel.

So Washington is playing an old game, not trimming a couple of percentage points of bureaucratic fat where it would be least noticed, but instead asking, “What will make them squeal?”

Mr. Obama’s own 2013 budget for the FAA ($15.172 billion) was actually lower than the current FAA budget after the sequester cuts ($15.265 billion.) Does that mean the president planned in his own budget for thousands of passengers to face long, frustrating, unpredictable delays, as a matter of policy?

Of course not. Bloomberg Government reported Wednesday the FAA “has more than enough air traffic controllers to manage furloughs without flight delays. ...

“The FAA, with the consent of the controllers’ union, could keep sequestration from affecting flights by targeting furloughs at airports with excess numbers of controllers, but the agency has declined to pursue that strategy,” Matthew Hummer reports for Bloomberg.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster suggests the FAA might first consider cutting some of the $500 million it’s spending on consultants, or perhaps the $325 million it allocates for supplies and travel. “In case there’s any doubt about the President’s ability to prioritize, at least two GOP Senators, Jerry Moran and Roy Blunt, have written bills to clarify Mr. Obama’s authority to make sensible spending decisions,” The Wall Street Journal editorialized last week. “He’s not interested, and Senate Democrats have blocked such reforms. Making smart choices about federal sending would spoil the fun of creating flight delays and then blaming Republicans.”

An FAA employee wrote to the Journal “Whether in HQ or at the field level it is clear that our management has no intention of managing anything. The only effort that I see is geared towards generating fear and demonstrating failure.”

The sequester cuts represent barely 1 percent of actual federal outlays — less than $45 billion of this year’s roughly $3.8 trillion. As the Chicago Tribune points out, the administration has had a year and a half to prepare for a sequester that the White House proposed, and that the president signed into law. “Yet their idea of good management is to subject thousands of civilian air controllers to rolling furloughs?” The administration thus toys not only with flight schedules, “but also with a moribund economy that relies on the efficiency of U.S. air travel.”

Members of Congress are now scrambling to “authorize” the FAA to put air controllers back to work by raiding airport maintenance funds. But in fact the administration needs no authorization to concentrate its vast remaining funds where they’ll do the most for passenger safety and convenience.

All that’s necessary to accomplish that is for the administration to stop playing political games, and instead do just what most private-sector Americans are now called upon to do: the best they can with what they’ve got.