Extortion in the skies

This week, the Obama administration furloughed 14,500 air traffic controllers — staffers will lose two days of work per month — ostensibly to comply with the 2011 Budget Control Act’s $85 billion in sequester cuts this year. The Federal Aviation Administration’s share is $637 million. So expect delays at the airport. That’s the idea, but it didn’t have to be.

The Obama administration has chosen to hold airline travel hostage in its never-ending effort to extort further tax increases from the GOP.

The administration argues that its hands are tied. By law, the FAA must cut spending across the board. Many lawmakers and industry leaders disagree, as air traffic controllers are “essential employees.” But to make absolutely sure, GOP senators have proposed legislation to allow the administration to prioritize cuts. For weeks, the White House has wanted no part of that.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that the FAA cuts must be across-the-board. “It was designed to be bad policy,” Carney said. If Congress doesn’t like that, he argued, let members postpone the sequester cuts or raise taxes.

To Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the furloughs present “a dangerous political stunt that could jeopardize the safety and security of air travelers.” Coburn has a list of cuts for nonessential spending, which the FAA could make in lieu of the air traffic controller furloughs. His list includes cutting 15 percent from the FAA’s consulting, supply and travel budgets and reducing or eliminating improvement programs.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called the FAA furloughs “a manufactured crisis” that could be avoided if the FAA rerouted $700 million of unused grant money.

Airline officials contend that though safety will not be compromised, there likely will be fewer flights. This cannot be good for a struggling economy. Shipping delays will hurt businesses. Flight delays will inconvenience business travelers at the country’s busiest airports and strand families trying to make the most of hard-earned vacation time.

And it’s not as if these folks haven’t paid taxes. Taxes and fees on domestic travel can represent some 20 percent of the cost of a ticket. The flying public gets to pay the full freight and in return gets deliberately slowed-down traffic.

Airlines for America spokeswoman Jean Medina told me that airlines have gotten used to coping with delays caused by weather.

With the FAA furloughs, airlines have to contend with both bad weather and bad government. Which is worse?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposes that Washington deal with the problem by ditching the sequester cuts and pretending to make up the difference by claiming savings from troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, he wants to keep spending and pretend to save by brandishing a gimmick.

Airline associations have joined forces to launch a “Don’t Ground America” campaign. It must be working. On Wednesday, Carney conceded that if Congress “wants to address specifically the problems caused by the sequester with the FAA, we would be open to looking at that. But that would be a Band-Aid measure.”

A bandage — that’s as good as it gets with this White House.

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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