By Kathryn A. Wolfe and Burgess Everett
More than a month after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned of "calamity" in the skies, travelers are still flying. Airlines aren't yet canceling flights. And there's no sign of the long lines the Obama administration warned everyone to expect when automatic spending cuts hit March 1.
What happened? The much-feared budget ax is turning out to be a slow-rolling series of snips, with effects that have been much more gradual or modest than projected.
Airlines have yet to suspend or cancel flights in response to the cuts, even though LaHood predicted during a White House appearance Feb. 22 that they would do so "within the next 30 days."
Meanwhile, far fewer airport control towers are facing potential closures than the 238 that the Federal Aviation Administration warned about in February. Only 24 towers -- in places like Olathe, Kan., and Gig Harbor, Wash. -- are in the first batch set to lose all their FAA funding on April 7. Dozens more will follow through early May, but local or state funding will keep some of those towers operating indefinitely.
The alarms about air travel are a prime example of how the White House "badly miscalculated" its rollout of the sequester, House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) said.
He reserved particular ire for suggestions that the administration instructed agencies not to prepare until almost the bitter end, then pulled out a megaphone to broadcast impending doom.
"In the case of the FAA, it was the same thing -- don't prepare, don't prepare, don't prepare, and then a week or two weeks out, full campaign mode," LoBiondo said. "People can come to their own conclusion, but I'm not sure [President Barack Obama] wants a solution on this, the way he's been handling it."
House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) issued his own verdict within two weeks of the sequester taking effect March 1: "The sky isn't falling."
Soon after making its initial warnings, the administration began cautioning that travelers won't start feeling the brunt of the sequester until sometime in April, when throttled-back overtime, rolling furloughs and hiring freezes will sink in at the FAA and the agencies that run airport security and customs checkpoints.
The air-traffic controllers union continues to warn that travelers will feel the pain as the cuts cascade.
"There are very real and very negative impacts to sequestration," said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, pointing to data the union has compiled looking at impacts to major airports. "There will be a degradation of capacity and efficiency at a time when we should be focused on increasing both."
But even if that comes to pass, the long lag between the warnings and the reality has fueled complaints from both Democrats and Republicans that Obama's team was crying wolf.
LaHood's rare February appearance in the White House press room was a key part of the sequester strategy for the administration, which wanted Congress to replace some of the budget cuts with tax increases on the wealthy.
His words hit an immediate nerve with local and regional media outlets as he warned that airport control towers were on the chopping block -- "We're talking about places like Boca Raton, Fla.; Joplin, Mo.; Hilton Head, S.C.; and San Marcos, Texas."