Federal transportation officials are warning of several-hour delays starting next week during the busiest times at the country's busiest airports because federal spending cuts forced furloughs for air traffic controllers. Above, a plane flies near the control tower at San Francisco International Airport earlier this year. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
Federal transportation officials are warning of several-hour delays starting this week during the busiest times at the country’s busiest airports because federal spending cuts forced furloughs for air traffic controllers.
The worst delays, which will ebb and flow with daily traffic, are expected at 13 hubs: JFK, LaGuardia and Newark in the New York area; Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco in California; O’Hare and Midway in Chicago; Miami and Fort Lauderdale in Florida; Atlanta; Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C.
To prevent planes from stacking up during busy times at those hubs, the Federal Aviation Administration will ground planes at their originating airports or order them to take circuitous routes, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.
The worst delays could be 210 minutes for flights headed to Atlanta, 132 minutes for flights to O’Hare and 80 minutes to LaGuardia, Huerta said. A whole runway could be taken out of action at Atlanta or O’Hare for lack of staffing, he said.
The worst delays for flights to Los Angeles are projected at 67 minutes and about 50 minutes for flights to JFK and Newark, he said.
“We are not going to sacrifice safety,” said Huerta, who said weather could cause even worse delays. “There are about a dozen airports that will see heavy to moderate delays, which could be similar to what we would experience during a significant summer thunderstorm.”
FAA workers are being furloughed 11 days — one day for each two-week pay period — starting Sunday until Sept. 30. Because Mondays and Fridays are the heaviest travel days, that’s when delays could be worst.
The furloughs represent about $200 million of the $637 million the FAA must cut from its budget this fiscal year. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said officials are also cutting contracts and travel, but furloughs are needed to cut enough funding.
“This is a dumb idea,” LaHood said of the spending cuts. “It’s a meat-ax approach. Congress needs to fix it.”
Transportation officials have said airlines might cut flights to avoid the delays, but airlines that were briefed Tuesday on furloughs have not done that.
The industry group Airlines for America is skeptical of the need for furloughing so many controllers, in contrast to the Transportation Security Administration avoiding furloughs.
“The math simply doesn’t work,” said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the airline group. “We find ourselves with little choice but to actively review all of our legal options to protect our passengers and shippers from being needlessly impacted.”
Bart Jansen reports for USA Today.