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Sequestration Takes Flight: FAA Furloughs Cause Delays

Long-rumored furloughs at air traffic control towers in major U.S. cities, including New York, took effect Sunday, causing significant flight delays and leading one association to sue.

It was a delayed effect, but an effect nonetheless: Sequestration has finally impacted the nation’s travelers.

Nearly two months after President Barack Obama signed a set of controversial sequestration cuts into effect, travel delays caused by cutbacks to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) air traffic control systems hit travelers for the first time Sunday night.

Air traffic controllers have never been furloughed, regardless of any budget cuts, and there is a reason for that—they are critical to maintain the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System.

More details:

The FAA furloughs: Last week, the FAA announced it was starting furloughs of air traffic controllers, forcing employees to take one day off for every 10 worked. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood criticized the move. “Not one person in America would use sequester to figure out what to do with their budgets,” he said. According to computer simulations reported by The New York Times, estimated delays at Chicago O’Hare International Airport would average 50.4 minutes, and extreme delays of 210 minutes were possible at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The warnings: Over the weekend, American Airlines released a statement on the matter, citing unclear instructions from the FAA on how delays would affect passengers: “As a result of the [FAA] sequestration budget cuts that took effect on March 1, American Airlines and American Eagle are urging customers to check their flight status on AA.com before departing for the airport tomorrow, Sunday April 21,” the airline wrote. “Unfortunately, the FAA has not yet provided specific details to the airlines, making it difficult to communicate exactly how customers will be affected. However, we will make every effort to communicate with our customers as information becomes available.”

The results: While the situation improved slightly on Monday, significant delays were reported at large airports nationwide on Sunday, with Newark Liberty International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport among the locations announcing delays of longer than 25 minutes. On Monday morning, few airports were reporting delays of an hour or longer, but the delays were most felt at Washington, DC’s Reagan National Airport and New York’s LaGuardia Airport (the latter also cited wind as an issue). An FAA spokeswoman said outside factors limited the pressure on airports nationwide: “Relatively good weather throughout the country and light traffic helped minimize air traffic delays,” Laura Brown told the Chicago Tribune.

The reaction: One key aviation association, Airlines for America, filed a lawsuit on Friday to prevent the furloughs. “Air traffic controllers have never been furloughed, regardless of any budget cuts, and there is a reason for that—they are critical to maintain the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System,” said the group’s president and CEO, Nicholas E. Calio. He also noted that frontline employees from other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, did not face similar cuts.

While the furloughs will continue over the next few months, the FAA recently delayed the closure of 149 air traffic control towers until June 15 after lawsuits were filed by a number of associations and municipal airports.

(iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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