A report by the Center for American Progress says automatic across-the-board budget cuts set to go into effect Jan. 2 could prompt the FAA to close operations at 106 airports around the country, including two in South Carolina.
By Chuck Crumbo
Published Aug. 2, 2012
Airports at Columbia and Florence may have to close if Congress fails to reverse automatic, across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect Jan. 2, according to a Washington think tank.
The Center for American Progress, which describes itself as an “independent nonpartisan educational institute,” published a report Wednesday saying the two S.C. airports are among 106 airports that could be closed because of spending cuts known as “sequestration.”
The Federal Aviation Administration, responsible for control tower operations at Columbia Metropolitan Airport and Florence Regional Airport, would have to whack $1.35 billion from its $15 billion annual budget if the cuts take effect, the center said.
To make ends meet, the FAA might have to furlough up to 2,000 air traffic controllers, the report said. In order to maintain normal operations at larger airports, the reduction in controllers could lead to the closing of smaller, regional airports that had fewer than 600,000 enplanements in 2011, according to an analysis by Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the center.
Columbia reported 487,474 enplanements, or passenger boardings, in 2011 while Florence recorded 68,169 boardings, according to FAA records. Columbia is the state’s busiest airport for cargo, handling 131.4 million tons of freight in 2011. It also is home to United Parcel Service’s Southeast hub.
Dan Mann, executive director of the Columbia airport, said he has not heard anything about closing of control towers or possible shuttering of the airport.
Sequestration, Mann noted, also would impact the budget of the Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible for passenger security at the nation’s airports.
“We work with the TSA and FAA and communicate with them all the time,” Mann said. “None of this has raised a red flag that is sequestration.”
Mann doubted that the FAA would abandon its operations at the airport. He noted that during previous government shutdowns, the FAA has kept controllers on the job, but furloughed support personnel. Similar measures might be taken if there are severe budget cuts, he said.
“I’m not buying into the theory, and I think that if that were possible we would certainly be going through planning exercises with the TSA and FAA,” Mann said.
Lilly, the report’s author, is a widely respected budget analyst in Washington, D.C., said Hope Derrick, spokeswoman for Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn, of South Carolina.
Lilly has 31 years of service with Congress. He is a former clerk and staff director for the House Appropriations Committee, executive director of the House Democratic Study Group and executive director of the Joint Economic Committee.
“There is some validity to that report,” Derrick said. “This is going to happen across the board, whether we’re hearing from specific agencies or not. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the senator’s office has not been notified of what the FAA plans to do if sequestration — which calls for $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts over the next 10 years — goes through.
Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted for the Sequestration Transparency Act, requiring the Obama administration to notify Congress about how the cuts will impact both military and domestic programs, said Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop.
The bill, sent to the White House on July 27, requires the administration to report to Congress within 30 days.
On Wednesday, Jeff Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, told the House Armed Services Committee that the automatic cuts would mean fewer FBI and Border Patrol agents, reductions in FAA traffic controllers, and a reduction in the number of food and workplace inspectors.
If Congress does not come up with a remedy to sequestration, Zients said all federal agencies would be ready to impose hefty cuts. Zients, though, did not offer specifics.
Sequestration came about late last year during congressional wrangling over increasing the federal debt ceiling, which was necessary so the government could pay its bills.
Legislation that Congress passed to raise the ceiling included a rider requiring automatic cuts if a bipartisan “super committee” could not come up with specific spending cuts or tax increases to lower the federal deficit. The committee failed, allowing the sequestration provision to kick in.
John Podesta, former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, founded the Center for American Progress.