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Fliers on watch for delays from FAA furloughs

Apr. 22, 2013 - 01:10PM   |  
By BEN MUTZABAUGH, LARRY COPELAND, NANCY TREJOS AND BART JANSEN   |   Comments
JFK international airport in New York is among those expected to be hardest hit by delays related to the furloughing of air traffic controllers.
JFK international airport in New York is among those expected to be hardest hit by delays related to the furloughing of air traffic controllers. (JFK International Airport)

Air travelers were keeping a close eye on airport departure boards Monday, hoping to get a sense of whether the threat of crushing delays from sequester-related budget cuts is real or just political bluster.

By 10:15 a.m. ET, congestion and “traffic management” delays began to crop up in the Northeast, an ominous sign for air travelers.

Air traffic controllers became subject to furloughs resulting from the spending cuts on Sunday, though delays generally came late in the day and were generally minor and sporadic, according to most accounts.

Monday’s busier weekday schedule was expected to be a better barometer as to what impact the furloughs will have on air travel.

Newark’s Liberty International Airport appeared to be the first to suffer long delays related to controller furloughs. As of 10:15 a.m. ET, the Federal Aviation Administration’s delay map showed delays averaging up to an hour because of “travel management initiatives,” though conditions there had returned to normal by noon.

Some LaGuardia flights were being delayed by an average of nearly two hours because of “wind” and “volume” as of noon ET. Wind is a regular occurrence at the delay-prone airport when blustery weather blows in, but “volume” suggested air traffic control issues there, as well. The FAA reported that the volume delays were decreasing as of noon.

At New York’s JFK airport, another facility prone to flight problems, delays averaging about 1 hour, 40 minutes were being reported by the FAA as of 11 a.m. ET. However, the cause for those delays was attributed to maintenance of runways and taxiways, according to the FAA.

This morning’s volume and “traffic management” delays have been sporadic, something that federal officials predicted in their warnings. Baltimore, Charlotte and Washington Dulles all had reported at least 30-minute delays at some point Monday.

Elsewhere, things appeared to be mostly normal, with only minor delays at some airports.

A spokeswoman for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport said at mid-morning that things were proceeding as normal.

“Operations at ATL currently are running smoothly with no significant delays,” said Myrna White. “Passengers are advised to check their respective airline’s website for flight status.”

Several passengers arriving in the South Terminal of the world’s busiest airport said Monday morning that they had not yet experienced significant flight delays.

Some frequent fliers said they arrived at their departure airports early in anticipation of sequester-related delays.

Ron Ferguson, 57, of Jupiter, Fla., said he gave himself “plenty of time” Monday morning at the West Palm Beach airport.

“I got in the frequent flyer line early because I understood Monday was going to be the day with sequestration,” he said. “But it was a lot better than I thought it was going to be.

“I just figured maybe the FAA was doing something management-wise to keep it from backing up, like shifting work schedules around or something like that.”

Ferguson said he’s still concerned about his return flight on Friday. “I will get to the airport early, because I understand there could be delays or long lines here,” he said.

In the Midwest, Karen Pride — a spokewoman for Chicago’s airports — said delays at O’Hare and Midway on Monday morning didn’t appear to be attributed to FAA furloughs.

“As of 10:30 (CT) this morning, some airlines at O’Hare reported delays of 30 minutes or more to the Florida and New York areas,” Pride said. “At Midway, airlines reported minor delays of 30 minutes.”

In Florida, Rod Johnson, a spokesman for Orlando International Airport, said there had been 10 flights delayed by at least an hour Monday morning.

“We’ve attributed that to weather,” he said.

He could not say if the furloughs contributed to the delay. “I can’t say that,” he said. “I don’t know for sure.”

Typically, the airport has 1,000 flight departures and arrivals a day.

In Miami, there were no significant delays at Miami International Airport as of 10:30 a.m. Monday, Miami International spokesman Greg Chin said to Today in the Sky.

“Yesterday was fine and today is fine,” he said of the airport, which typically has 30 to 40 flights an hour.

Chin said “it’s too early to say” how the furloughs will affect the airport. The airport is in between the peak winter and summer seasons.

“This for us is a slower time,” he said. “If this continues into the summer, that can present problems.”

Marshall Lowe, a spokesman for Los Angeles International Airport, said there were 72 delays of an hour or more on Sunday, though he was reluctant to try to pinpoint the cause.

“I don’t know. It could be the weather. It could be the furloughs,” he said.

As of Monday morning, “everything is going smoothly,” he said.

Flights were arriving and departing at a rate of 68 per hour, which is typical of LAX, he said.

Ian Gregor, public relations manager for the FAA’s Pacific region, said that Sunday, arrivals at LAX were delayed an average of 3 hours and 7 minutes. He did not have any numbers for Monday.

Airlines, however, have been sounding the alarm over the furloughs.

Many have urged customers to contact their congressional representatives via a website titled “DON’T GROUND AMERICA.”

One big carrier — Alaska Airlines — has even gone so far as to waive rebooking fees at one of its busier airports, citing the threat of “FAA Furloughs” as the cause. The airline says customers ticketed through Los Angeles International — one of the airports predicted to see a pronounced effect of any furlough-related delays — can rebook without penalty if they were ticketed to fly through there between Sunday and Tuesday.

“In response to sequestration budget cuts, Alaska Airlines is recommending that customers check the status of their flight before leaving for the airport and allow additional time to check in when traveling to or from Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Newark, San Diego and San Francisco,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement issued Saturday. “The Federal Aviation Administration plans to furlough air traffic controllers starting Sunday, which the agency predicts could cause extensive ground delays ranging from 50 minutes to two hours and a reduction in flight arrivals of 30 percent to 40 percent at certain airports.”

As for Sunday, The Associated Press reported that most commercial airline flights “moved smoothly throughout most of the country … , though some delays appeared in the late evening in and around New York on Sunday.”

In Los Angeles, AP said, some fliers at LAX “were met with long delays on the first day of staffing cuts for air traffic controllers,” with some flight delays “averaging more than three hours for flights arriving (at) LAX.”

Reuters reported that LaGuardia and JFK airports “reported delays of more than an hour, and Philadelphia international airport also reported delays due to furloughs, the FAA said.” However, those airports are among the nation’s most delay-prone, often experiencing hour-long delays even in fair conditions.

Elsewhere, Reuters wrote that LAX “reported nearly a two-hour delay at 10 p.m. ET, and Newark Liberty International reported 28-minute delays, though the FAA could not confirm whether those were related to the staff cuts. Delays of up to 58 minutes in San Francisco and 29 minutes in Orlando were due to construction and weather, the FAA said.”

Federal transportation officials reiterated late last week their warnings about hours-long delays that could show up this week during the busiest times at the country’s busiest airports because federal spending cuts forced furloughs for air-traffic controllers.

They said the worst delays, which they predicted would 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; O’Hare and Midway in Chicago; Miami and Fort Lauderdale; Atlanta; Philadelphia and Charlotte.

To prevent planes from stacking up during busy times at those hubs, the Federal Aviation Administration will hold planes at their originating airports or order them to take circuitous routes, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said last week.

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 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.”

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Ben Mutzabaugh, Larry Copeland, Nancy Trejos and Bart Jansen write for USA TODAY.

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