The budget sequester will make US air travel a nightmare. Probably.

Tim Fernholz

Americans without kids, and who aren’t working for the military or the government, may not notice the sequester—the US government’s March 1 automatic budget cuts to military and social spending—until they go to the airport.

There, if the warnings of government officials hold true, passengers will face long lines and delays thanks to fewer government workers handling air traffic control and security as cuts go into effect in the weeks after the March 1 start date. Critics say the fears are overstated. But the real story here is how unpredictable it can be to cut spending across-the-board without specifying how.

The result is Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano telling reporters there will be fewer people manning the x-rays and patting down travelers at security checkpoints, meaning a bigger gap between checking your bag and making it to your gate.

Once you board your plane, the $600 million in cuts that the Federal Aviation Administration faces come into effect. US Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood told Congress that air traffic controllers will have to work fewer days and midnight shifts, that rural air traffic control towers will be closed, and that maintenance on air traffic equipment will be delayed.

The result could be flight delays of as long as 90 minutes at busy airports like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. 

One reason it seems sequester will not be prevented is that the cuts are spread widely, preventing a single powerful lobby from opposing them: Defense cuts will hurt military communities across the nation, while domestic spending cuts are spread across services for children and the poor, with more politically powerful groups like seniors and corporations avoiding the brunt of the impact. At least until all that money unspent leads to a broader economic slowdown, as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and the IMF have warned.

But America’s 638 million air travelers (that number includes repeats) are an audience that will notice, especially business travelers. That gives administration officials an incentive to play up the worst case scenario, and critics are wondering why these cuts have to equal reduced performance—isn’t there a lot of waste in the government?

The problem is that the cuts are across the board reductions, which means they disproportionately affect larger current expenditures, like salaries, which make up nearly half the FAA’s budget, rather than long-term investments in runway maintenance, figuring out how to get drones into the skies, the increase in commercial space activity or modernizing the air traffic system—all initiatives Congress approved funding for just last year. The sequester cuts also need to be implemented immediately, which further reduces administrative discretion.

There is hope that that the agencies can use the budget cuts as an incentive for innovation. For instance, the TSA could use the cuts as an opportunity to radically change the way it handles security, moving from its scan-everybody “security theater” approach to a smarter, risk-based assessment that requires less waiting without compromising safety. But such a hope probably underestimates the risk assessment performed by TSA managers, who will face less scrutiny for hours long lines than if something went wrong with a new system.

Indeed, the need for reform at TSA is a reminder of what’s wrong with across-the-board cuts: If Congress wants the TSA to be cheaper and more effective, it can pass a law for it to adopt the risk-assessment approach. As it stands now, TSA can’t un-buy all those expensive scanners that don’t work, but it can cut salaries.

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