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Response to U.S. flight delays is hypocritical

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Air travelers met the U.S. federal budget "sequester" up close and personal this week, and it was not a happy encounter. Tens of thousands of fliers across the United States faced delays, missed connections and canceled flights, as spending cuts forced unpaid leave for air traffic controllers.These "bad air days," as the New York Post dubbed them, began on Sunday, a slow travel day, and grew worse. On Wednesday, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, about 3,000 flights were delayed, 863 of them because of furloughs.

The staffing-related delays affected only about three per cent of all flights, but they were galling for the passengers affected. Almost as galling were the reactions from some members of Congress who savaged the FAA for making the cuts, as if Congress had nothing to do with this mess.

"The FAA’s management of sequestration is quickly going from bad to worse," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "What else are you planning to do that you haven’t told us about?" Rep. Hal Rogers, head of the House Appropriations Committee, demanded of FAA chief Michael Huerta.

Rogers’ surprise seemed about as genuine as that of Capt. Renault in Casablanca, who announces at Rick’s that he is "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here," moments before he accepts a pile of chips.

No members of Congress should be surprised at the havoc wrought by the sequester. After all, they caused it, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood repeatedly warned them about its consequences.

As long as the cuts affected relatively powerless constituencies, few lawmakers seemed to care. This week, though, it hit well-heeled executives who travel, the powerful airline industry, and two unions that represent FAA workers. Angry calls poured into the offices of lawmakers, who in turn started blaming everyone but themselves.

Truth is, the reason the nation is facing dumb, indiscriminate cuts is the inability of Congress and the White House to head off the sequester with a comprehensive budget deal. Now that the cuts are kicking in, whining about them is the height of hypocrisy.

The FAA insists that the sequester forces across-the-board cuts and that the agency has done everything possible to avoid delays. Republicans say that’s not true. It’s tough to sort out who’s right. This much is clear: Delays have affected more than 20 per cent of daily flights this week, according to FlightAware.com, up from the typical 15 per cent. Particularly hard hit have been Los Angeles International and the three New York area airports.

The solution to the sequester’s meat-axe approach is what it has always been: sensible, flexible cuts in domestic programs, accompanied by tax simplification and changes in the big benefit programs driving the nation’s deficits.

That doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Congress is looking for a quick fix to end the controller furloughs. Such a fix would be a relief to harried fliers, but using gimmicks to patch problems as they arise is no way to run a railroad, an airline system or a government.

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