Flight delays of more than two hours may occur at the largest U.S. airports after furloughs of controllers and maintenance workers begin April 21 under automatic spending cuts, Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta said.
Atlanta’s Hartsfield, the world’s busiest airport, has the longest projected maximum delay in the FAA’s models, as much as 3 1/2 hours, Huerta said. Delays there will average 11 minutes for all flights if one runway can’t be used as a result of furloughs, he said.
The FAA must cut $637 million from its $16 billion budget by Sept. 30 under the government budget cuts known as sequestration. Huerta said the FAA projects increased delays as a result at New York’s three major airports, and in Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
“There are about a dozen airports that will likely see heavy to moderate delays,” Huerta said. “It could be similar to the delays that we would experience during significant summer thunder storm, except that the impact would be spread across country instead of just one area.”
The FAA has cut as much as it can from spending on travel and training, making reductions in air-traffic control operations necessary, Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters at a briefing.
“We have no choice at this point to implement the law as it was passed by Congress,” Huerta said.
Airlines may sue to block the furloughs, Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Airlines for America trade group, said in an e-mail in response to questions.
“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,” Medina said in a statement.
Carriers don’t believe the FAA has done everything possible to shift money within its budget to minimize the impacts of sequestration, Medina said.
“The FAA expects that a 10 percent sequestration cut will equal 30-40 percent capacity reductions at certain airports,” she said. “That math simply doesn’t work.”
Huerta said Chicago’s O’Hare is expected to have the longest average wait times above normal, at 50 minutes. With fewer controllers, it must close one runway under some conditions, he said.
The agency also projected additional congestion at seven other airports in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Miami; San Diego, Philadelphia; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Chicago Midway.
The projections were based on flights on March 29, which had higher than average traffic because it was a Friday, Huerta said.
“We want the traveling public to be aware of the possibility of delays so they are not surprised as their travel plans are delayed or disrupted,” LaHood said.
“We know that many people have purchased their tickets for the summer vacation season,” he said. “We will do all we can to reduce impacts, but reduced staffing will slow down our ability to keep the system moving.”
The delays due to furloughs could be compounded by bad weather or air-traffic equipment failures, he said.
Furloughs will make delays and disruptions unavoidable at busy airports such as Newark’s Liberty International, Ray Adams, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s local president at that airport’s tower, said in an interview. The union represents about 15,000 FAA-employed controllers.
About 10 percent of controllers will be furloughed on average, according to Huerta. The impacts on some shifts will be greater than that, Adams said.
Newark, the most-delayed airport in the U.S. according to Department of Transportation data, is chronically understaffed because it’s so difficult for new controllers to become certified there, Adams said.
At times late at night, only two controllers staff the tower, Adams said. FAA rules prohibit having fewer than two people working late shifts, so additional cuts will have to come during busier day shifts, he said.
“We’re not going to move as many airplanes as we normally could if we had the bodies and positions that we need,” Adams said. “You’re going into the busiest season in the most complex airspace in the country with less controllers.”
The agency plans to close 149 towers staffed by contractors at small and mid-size airports by June 15 and require most of its 47,000 employees to take as many as 11 unpaid days off.
Airports are working with airlines, the FAA and other agencies to prepare for possible delays, according to an e-mailed statement from the Washington-based trade group Airports Council International-North America.
“ACI-NA is very concerned about significant delays and passenger inconvenience that could occur beginning this Sunday,” Christopher Oswald, the group’s vice president of safety and regulatory affairs, said in the statement.