Being pissed off at the airport is something we all understand, so that's probably why everyone from President Obama to former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles is talking about how much worse it will be for air travelers when automatic budget cuts go into effect on Friday. It's the public's common denominator.
"When you guys have to go out here to Reagan airport and wait in line three hours for security, you're going to be pissed and so is everyone else," said Bowles at a recent Politico briefing.
Yet Congress appears incapable of fending off the "sequestration" cuts, which were part of a debt ceiling deal negotiated a year and a half ago. The cuts will impact all of government; Washington D.C. is bracing for pink slips. In the transportation world, sequestration will add to the already heavy burden being placed on an infrastructure system badly in of upgrading.
No one really knows what's going to happen. If the budget hawks are right, it could be nothing. But if the sequester amounts to anything, the place where the public will see it first is at the airport. The Federal Aviation Administration is looking at $600 million in cuts, with virtually all of their 47,000 employees being furloughed for one day per pay period for the rest of the year. The Transportation Security Administration will experience a $1.27 billion cut under the sequestration plan, which Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said would lead to unspecified furloughs.
This isn't the first time we've seen this happen. The transportation community rarely gets its day in the spotlight unless air travel is somehow impacted. Look at the furor that erupted over a partial FAA shutdown in August of 2011, which led to a fairly swift resolution of aviation legislation that had been languishing in Congress for years. By contrast, a similarly stalled highway bill only limped to completion last summer by hitching a ride on a bill that kept student loan interest rates from increasing.
What's going on here? Why is air travel the thing that the public seems to care most about? How can the public's interest in aviation be used to broaden a general understanding of infrastructure? Other than long lines, how will the aviation industry be impacted by sequestration? What about the surface transportation industry?