Only certain government functions involve direct contact with the public - and commercial aviation is one of the most visible. The two really vulnerable areas, at least in theory, are security screening and air traffic control. The FAA employs 14,750 air traffic controllers, including trainees, and as it stands they would face a day of furlough per two-week pay period. That's about 10 percent fewer workers on any given day, and that means a good chance of delays. From the NYT:
To handle such a major staff shortage but still maintain safety, federal aviation officials said they would accept fewer airplanes into the system, the same tactic they use in bad weather. That means that in places where airplanes normally follow one another with a six- or seven-mile gap, there might be a 10- to 20-mile gap. As a result, passengers may sit on tarmacs and endure delays as they wait for planes to push back from the gate. "It's going to be like perpetual bad weather," said Kevin Mitchell, the chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. "You're going to have to look at this as if you're going out knowing there's a storm."
Furloughs are also expected for Transportation Security Administration workers, and Janet Napolitano, the Secretary of Homeland Security, said that the cuts could result in longer wait times at security checkpoints - perhaps an hour or more. But in truth no one really knows what will happen. Government employees must be given 30 days notice of any impending furlough, and the notices cannot be given until March 1. So from what I hear it's possible the cuts won't really be felt until April and by that time the sequestration could be rendered moot by an overall budget package. Washington can't even stage a full-blown fiscal emergency without mass confusion. From the Washington Post:
The sequester is set to cut spending across the board. But how? We know an awful lot about what the sequester can't do. It can't cut Social Security, Medicaid, military salaries or any number of of exempt programs. It can't mess with federal pay scales. It can't favor certain programs over others. But the actual process by which cuts are to be determined, and who is involved in that process, is more obscure. The problem, budget experts say, is that the Budget Control Act was simultaneously very strict in its dictates and not specific about what those dictates mean. "The law states that the 'same percentage sequestration shall apply to all programs, projects, and activities within a budget account,' " former OMB director Peter Orszag says. "That's pretty restrictive, giving little room for creativity." What room there is comes from defining exactly what is meant by "programs," "projects" and "activities." "There is not a standard definition," Stan Collender, a longtime Congressional budget hand currently at the PR firm Qorvis, explains. "It's not something that exists anywhere else in nature."