Monday, March 25, 2013

What If You Cut a Budget And Nobody Noticed?

One of the greatest fears of those involved in government when the Sequester went into effect wasn't so much that certain programs and services were going to be cut, it was that programs and services would be cut--and nobody would notice.  In a system where the only time questions are asked about funding (and sometimes not even then) is when something new is being added--having a line item in the budget is something to hold on to and cherish like it is your own child.  Because once it's in there, everybody forgets about it--and the administrators can just add their annual five or six percent to it and nobody says "boo".

That is, until something like the Sequester comes along--and actual cuts (not reductions in the expected increase as Democrats like to call "cuts") must happen.  Then, a critical eye is cast upon a department budget and what is really not all that important is (or at least should be) the first thing to go.

And that is the case for air traffic control at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh.  From what I can find in on-line records, ATC started in Oshkosh in the early 1960's, when the airport was serviced by regional air carrier service.  For 40-years, that traffic--and rudimentary technology--made manning the control tower a necessity.  But once Wittman was designated a general aviation airport--and modern technology allowed controllers to remotely work airfields from a centralized location--nobody ever questioned the need to continue ATC.  It was one of those things where "we've always done it--and that's why we keep doing it".  The FAA even "doubled down" on it by spending $7-million on construction of a new control tower about four years ago.

But then came the Federal budget crunch, and somebody finally had to take a look at whether manning the tower is actually necessary to keeping the airport safe.  And finally, someone said "No, it is not"--just like they did at 148 other airports around the country which for years (and likely decades) were just line items in a budget to which nobody paid the slightest attention.

This Two Cents would be completely different in tone if not for the reaction of the pilots who use Wittman Field.  So far, they have told us that losing ATC will only mean that they need to keep in contact with other fliers and keep a closer watch out for other aircraft.  There were no organized protests outside the terminal building.  No candlelight vigils around the tower itself.  No press conferences with speakers predicting planes falling out of the sky or death and carnage along the runways. You know, the kind of stuff we see all the time when any other government program or service might get less of an increase in funding than they were expecting to get in a new budget.

And if the Sequester cuts remain in effect for an extended period of time--with no effect on safety at the affected airports--it should require serious discussion and proof that it needs to resume before the money is automatically put back into those budgets.  Because isn't that the way spending plans should be put together anyway?

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