Increasing delays are being reported as air traffic controllers are furloughed at airports across the country. (AFP / Getty Images)
How much frustration will build up in the skies before politicians on the ground in Washington do something about flight delays?
That’s what the flying public, airlines and some politicians asked Tuesday, as delays erupted across the nation’s air traffic grid for the second straight weekday that air traffic controllers were taking a day off without pay.
The battle over automatic federal spending cuts — resulting in the furlough of about 1,500 controllers a day — combined with weather and airport construction caused 273 cancellations and 4,749 delayed flights by late in the day, according to FlightAware.com, which tracks U.S. flights.
New York’s three main airports — LaGuardia, JFK and Newark’s Liberty — had sporadic delays all day Tuesday that the FAA attributed to weather, congestion or staffing issues. Delays at those airports tend to ripple across the country. There were also delays at airports in Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth, Las Vegas and Washington.
Tuesday’s toll comes on top of 400 canceled flights and 6,997 delays on Monday, and 207 cancellations and 4,842 delays on Sunday, the first day of furloughs. The Federal Aviation Administration said 1,200 of Monday’s delays were a result of the furloughs; 400 of Sunday’s were.
At least two U.S. senators, a Republican and a Democrat, urged postponing the furloughs Tuesday, something the nation’s airlines sued to do on Friday.
But the stalemate between the Obama administration, which insists the furloughs are the only way to cover the cuts, and congressional Republicans, who argue that there must be other ways to achieve savings, continues.
It’s creating havoc for fliers such as Lisa Hagendorf who say their travel plans have been disrupted. Hagendorf’s Delta Air Lines flight from Chicago’s O’Hare to New York’s JFK was delayed twice Monday before ultimately being canceled. The airline, she said, cited “weather problems,” but as far as she could tell, the skies were clear in Chicago.
She had planned on it being a quick day trip for work. Instead, she ended up staying in a Chicago hotel overnight to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight Tuesday.
“The news with the furloughs is just too coincidental,” she said. “Because of the furlough, my same-day trip to Chicago became an unexpected ‘overnightmare.’”
Charles Moynihan, an ESPN producer and photographer, was scheduled to fly from Phoenix to Newark on an 11:36 a.m. United Airlines flight on Tuesday. The flight was delayed to 2:40 p.m.
“This is unacceptable,” he said. “Mother Nature is ‘unpredictable.’ Airlines are at her mercy. To me, the furloughs were a ‘predictable’ known and should have been spread out over a longer period of time to lessen passenger angst.”
On the ground in Washington, congressional Republicans and Obama administration officials turned to finger-pointing.
The FAA must cut $637 million by Sept. 30. The agency says it is achieving $200 million of those savings through the furloughs of 47,000 employees, including about 13,000 air traffic controllers. On Tuesday, administration officials reiterated that they had no other choice but to impose the furloughs.
“We don’t have a whole lot of options,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. “As I’ve said from the very beginning, these are terrible choices that we’re forced to choose between. It’s for that reason that we’ve really said that sequester is really a blunt instrument. Congress needs to come together and resolve the whole sequester issue.”
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who calls the across-the-board spending cuts a “dumb idea,” said stack-up of flight delays should not come as a surprise.
“The idea that this was just sprung on somebody on Capitol Hill or sprung on people — obviously you haven’t been paying attention to Ray LaHood,” he said. “I’ve been talking about this for a few months.”
Republicans say that the administration is using the furloughs as a political ploy to turn public opinion against the cuts, or sequestration as they’re called in Washington.
“Our goal here shouldn’t be to score political points on the backs of weary travelers,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “It should be to fix the problem.”
At least one Democrat joined in on the criticism of the administration’s handling of the cuts.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., joined Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., in sending a letter to LaHood and Huerta saying that the furloughs and plan to close 149 air traffic control towers raise “serious safety and operational issues.”
“We are now faced with substantial possible disruption to the air-transportation system,” they wrote.
Summer travel season coming
The airlines warn that the situation could worsen, especially if it continues into the peak summer travel season.
The airline industry trade group, Airlines for America, the union Air Line Pilots Association and the Regional Airline Association asked a federal court Friday to stop the furloughs. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit hasn’t scheduled a hearing.
“We can handle it for a little while, but this can’t continue,” US Airways CEO Doug Parker said.
He said regional routes flown by smaller jets will be particularly hard hit. “It will have an impact on small communities. ... There are other ways to cut these costs rather than harming the air-travel system and the flying public,” he said.
Alaska Airlines has encountered most of its problems at Los Angeles International Airport, said spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey. On Tuesday, flights out of LA were delayed 30 to 45 minutes. The airline was letting travelers who booked their flights on or before Sunday for travel through Tuesday rebook without penalty fees.
“This could continue indefinitely until the government resolves this issue,” she said.
Darryl Jenkins, an aviation analyst, said he’s not sure that will happen anytime soon.
“We had been at a point where supply of air space and the number of flights were in equilibrium,” he said. “Now it is a mess, and this summer will get worse.”
Bart Jansen and Nancy Trejos write for USA Today. Charisse Jones and Ben Mutzabaugh also contributed.