Will the sequester affect U.S. aviation safety?

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April 8, 2013

There has been a lot of talk lately about the forced spending cuts - sometimes called "sequestration" - that have begun to take effect in the federal budget. Over the next decade, sequestration is expected to result in approximately $1.2 trillion worth of cuts across all federal agencies. The automatic reductions began on March 1, 2013.

More than $600 million of the sequestration cuts will come from the Federal Aviation Administration's budget. Many fear that these cuts could impact safety, leading to an increase in aviation accidents.

Furloughs and closures

Although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is looking at a number of ways to make the necessary cuts, it has said publicly that air traffic controller furloughs, or unpaid leaves, will be an inevitable part of the process.

The FAA sent furlough notices to the majority of their 47,000 employees on March 7 and it is expected that nearly all of the agency's employees will have to take at least one furlough day every two weeks. According to reports, some employees will have to take 11 unpaid days beginning April 7 through September 30, 2013.

In addition to the furlough of air traffic controllers, the FAA plans on eliminating the midnight air traffic controller shifts at 60 control towers throughout the United States.

The closure of certain air traffic control towers is also on the FAA's radar. On March 22, the FAA announced that a total of 149 federal contract air traffic control towers will close. As part of their sequestration implementation plan to stop federal funding, the agency had planned to begin shuttering the towers on April 7. They said it would take roughly four weeks for the agency to shut down all 149 towers.

These closures have now been put on hold. The FAA announced on April 5 that it is now delaying the closures of all 149 contract towers until June 15, 2013 due to multiple legal challenges it is now facing from organizations representing the air traffic controllers. The FAA also said that it will close the facilities unless the airports decide to continue operations as a nonfederal contract tower.

The towers targeted for closure are currently staffed by contract employees rather than FAA air traffic controllers. These towers tend to be located at lower-traffic airports and direct more private plane traffic than they do commercial flights.

Airports that have their control towers eliminated will not necessarily be closed down. Instead, air traffic controllers at other locations will direct traffic remotely for airports without control towers. When remote supervision is not available, some aircraft will be allowed to land without help from air traffic control.

Controllers at control towers are responsible for aircraft separation in airport traffic areas. Without such controllers, separation will be completely up to the pilots approaching and landing at the uncontrolled airport. This inherently compromises aviation safety. History has clearly demonstrated that the risk of mid-air collisions at uncontrolled airports is exponentially higher than at controlled airports.

Aviation accident lawsuits

There is no telling yet what effect sequestration will have on airline safety in the United States. However, it is easy to imagine a situation where lower staffing levels could lead to compromised oversight and an increased risk of accidents. In addition, the furloughs and tower closures could cause congestion and other safety issues at airports.

Hopefully, none of these safety concerns that we expect to emanate from the sequestration will translate into real-life accidents. However, if a plane crash or other aviation accident does occur, it is important for victims to take steps to protect their rights by seeking representation from an experienced aviation accident attorney.