NYC Fliers Confront Delays on FAA Controller Furloughs

Flights to and from New York City-area airports are experiencing delays of almost two hours today because of weather, maintenance and the automatic U.S. budget cuts that furloughed air-traffic controllers.

The disruptions in the nation’s busiest air-travel market affected the three largest U.S. airlines. United Continental Holdings Inc., the biggest, has a hub at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty airport, while Delta Air Lines Inc. and AMR Corp.’s American Airlines are the largest at New York’s LaGuardia.

“Controllers will space planes farther apart so they can manage traffic with current staff, which will lead to delays at airports including New York’s LaGuardia,” the Federal Aviation Administration said today in an e-mailed statement. Yesterday there were 400 flight delays attributable to the furloughs.

LaGuardia had delays of one hour, 43 minutes for some arrivals as of 6 p.m. local time as wind added to the slowdown, while departures ran about 60 minutes late, according to the FAA’s travel website. Flights to New York’s Kennedy airport were as much as two hours, 43 minutes late, partly due to runway maintenance. Newark also had delays.

Some arrivals were an average of 22 minutes late in Charlotte, North Carolina, because of staffing shortages, the FAA’s website showed, while thunderstorms slowed air traffic in Miami and Denver’s airport grappled with snow and ice.

Tarmac Rule

Urged on by two trade groups, the U.S. Transportation Department said it’s considering whether to suspend enforcement of regulations preventing lengthy tarmac delays.

Airlines for America, which represents large carriers, and the Regional Airline Association asked for a moratorium on the rule on April 19 because budget cuts make delays more likely, the Transportation Department said in a statement. Airlines can’t let domestic flights sit on the tarmac for more than three hours without giving passengers a chance to leave the plane.

United waived flight-change fees for today and tomorrow for Los Angeles itineraries.

The Chicago-based carrier saw “alarming pockets of degradation” at LaGuardia and Los Angeles both last night and today because of the furloughs, Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

“We are concerned about how this is going to evolve and affect air travel reliability for our customers,” she said. “Unfortunately there has been no indication of a plan from the FAA on how to handle the growing problem.”

Los Angeles

Flights yesterday into Los Angeles were delayed an average of three hours due to staffing shortages, and when a shift of workers left at midnight the airport was still behind by 200 flights from earlier in the day, Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in an e-mail. One airline landed planes at nearby Ontario airport, and shuttled passengers by bus to the Los Angeles airport, he said.

An average of about 10 percent of controllers will be on furlough on any given day, according to the union, which represents about 15,000 FAA-employed controllers.

Delays may “worsen throughout the week” and the furloughs “should be halted immediately,” the union said today in a statement.

Delta said on its website that it is “disappointed” by the furloughs, and said there may be delays at 10 airports including LaGuardia, Kennedy, Newark, Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Little Visibility

American issued a similar warning to passengers last week. A lack of details from the FAA make it “difficult to communicate exactly how customers will be affected,” Andrea Huguely, a spokeswoman for the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier, said in an April 20 e-mail.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta warned last week that delays at major U.S. airports may reach more than two hours with fewer controllers on duty because of the spending cuts known as sequestration. The agency has “no choice” about layoffs for those employees and maintenance workers, he said.

The Airlines for America group last week sued the FAA, saying the cutbacks are based on a flawed reading of the law and furloughs would snarl airports and hurt the economy.

FAA leaders could use discretion and make mandatory budget cuts in other areas that don’t affect the agency’s mission of managing U.S. airspace, Delta General Counsel Ben Hirst said in an April 19 letter to the agency in which he cited memos from U.S. solicitors general under the most recent Democratic and Republican administrations that had the same conclusion.

Flight delays and cancellations may result in “demand destruction” and a lower second-quarter revenue outlook, Daniel McKenzie, an analyst at Buckingham Research in New York, wrote today in a note to clients.

JetBlue Airways Corp., which has its hometown base at Kennedy, joins United, Delta and Southwest Airlines Co. among carriers with greater risk of delays, he wrote.

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