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Worse Than a Hurricane? New York Times Hypes Effect of Sequester on Air Travel

Worse than a hurricane? New York Times reporter Matthew Wald went a bit overboard in his Friday story on possible delays at airports because of the budget cuts due to take effect next week, known as the sequester: "Spending Cuts Threaten Delays In Air Travel."

Airlines and airports across the country are preparing for across-the-board federal budget cuts due to hit next week as if they were a hurricane, although with even less certainty about how many flights they will have to cancel and how many passengers will be stranded. The federal government is warning about delays that could begin in March, as the first cuts take effect, and reduced takeoffs and slower security lines that could worsen in April with furloughs.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has told Congress that most of the Federal Aviation Administration’s 47,000 employees would face a day of furlough per two-week pay period, meaning on average about 10 percent fewer workers on any given day. There are about 14,750 air traffic controllers, including trainees, so that would mean on every shift there would be substantially fewer in all. In some areas, like New York, there could be problems even in advance of furloughs, if overtime budgets are cut.

To handle such a major staff shortage but still maintain safety, federal aviation officials said they would accept fewer airplanes into the system, the same tactic they use in bad weather. That means that in places where airplanes normally follow one another with a six- or seven-mile gap, there might be a 10- to 20-mile gap. As a result, passengers may sit on tarmacs and endure delays as they wait for planes to push back from the gate.

“It’s going to be like perpetual bad weather,” said Kevin Mitchell, the chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. “You’re going to have to look at this as if you’re going out knowing there’s a storm.”

There could also be longer security lines at airports because of anticipated furloughs of Transportation Security Administration workers. In addition, deplaning from international flights could be slower because Customs and Border Protection agents are expected to work fewer hours.

(ABC's Good Morning America also picked up on the convenient airline passenger angle, warning of a "fiscal emergency" that will "cripple" flights in the United States.)

Wald quoted the air traffic controllers union which, shocking no one, was against the budget cuts, predicting  “a negative impact on the efficiency and capacity of the National Airspace System, as well as the nation’s fragile economy.” Nowhere did Wald make the point that the sequester, though it will have some effect, involves an $85 billion cut out of a $3600 billion annual federal budget.