Coburn offers FAA easy alternatives to closing towers, cutting air traffic controllers

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In the latest installment of Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s letter-writing campaign for administration sanity in implementing the sequester, the Republican is taking on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) spending cut priorities.

In a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, Coburn called on the FAA to cancel upcoming conferences, stop nonessential hiring or reform low-priority programs before cutting elements that could harm flight safety.

“The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced today that it will close 173 air traffic control towers, effective April 7, and could furlough nearly 47,000 employees, ‘including all management and non-management employees working within the Air Traffic Organization,'” Coburn wrote in the letter, dispatched Wednesday. “All of the 173 towers closing April 7 are privately run under contracts. The department’s inspector general, however, reported that these same contract towers are both cheaper and safer than towers operated by the FAA.”

Under sequestration, the FAA is expected to cut $600 million — or just 4 percent of the agency’s nearly $16 billion budget for fiscal year 2012.

According Coburn, if a reduction in conference expenditures can stop “even one day of furlough for one air traffic controller,” then the FAA should be moving forward with it.

Coburn offered the transportation secretary a list of reforms that could make up for the $600 million cut without major safety disruptions — including a reduction in FAA “spending on consultants, supplies, and travel by 15 percent,” which he estimated would save $105 million; and reducing Airport Improvement Program grants by up to $926 million, which he noted was recommended by President Barack Obama’s FY2013 budget.

“In August 2013, the FAA is sponsoring a two-day conference, the Second Annual Asia-Pacific Flight Standards Meeting,” Coburn noted. “The conference will feature speakers from the FAA, as well as roundtable discussions on political will and budgets. According to the FAA’s website, this conference is an ‘opportunity to share information on FAA best practices in the safety oversight of operations and continuing airworthiness with civil aviation authorities in the Asia-Pacific Region.'”

“This forum should not be a higher priority than immediate air safety measures, and certainly the expense to the administration for this conference is highly questionable at a time when employees are being furloughed,” Coburn wrote.

The Oklahoma senator pointed out that the FAA recently posted two job openings (one posted after the sequester took effect) for “community planners,” with salaries from $57,080 to $126,095, tasked with airport layout planning. They also have four other job openings posted for “Management and Program Assistants” tasked with aiding managers and other employees with basic office administrative task — with salaries up to $59,000.

“Leaving these six job openings unfilled would hardly put a dent in the $600 million in savings that FAA needs to find, but they do amount to the full time yearly salaries of four air traffic controllers,” Coburn wrote in his letter to LaHood. “That means they could offset a full week of furloughs for 208 air traffic controllers.”

“These numbers may not be huge, but they illustrate an important point,” he added. “FAA is not doing enough to seek out ways to save money without affecting their mission.”

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