Delays may average 50 minutes per flight at O'Hare International Airport this week because of fewer air traffic controllers in the tower until the federal budget sequestration is resolved, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
It would be the equivalent of every day being a bad weather day diminishing the capacity of the national airspace system, with some O'Hare flights delayed as much as 134 minutes, the FAA said.
In contrast, O'Hare averages air traffic delays of 15 minutes or less when the airport is running smoothly and normal staffing permits use of the maximum number of runways, according to O'Hare controllers and the FAA.
The reason for the slowdown nationwide is that the FAA on Sunday started furloughing some of its almost 15,000 air traffic controllers. The move is in compliance with the 10 percent automatic sequestration cuts that the government put in place for all federal agencies if a budget deal were not reached between Congress and the Obama administration.
FAA staffing is being reduced this week at airport control towers and other air traffic facilities that direct aircraft. Controllers face furloughs of at least one day during each two-week period, officials said.
O'Hare controllers are not expecting a major impact in the first few days of the furloughs.
"Most of our controllers did not take a furlough on the first day," said Dan Carrico, president of the controllers' union at O'Hare tower.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said he had no other option to help reach $637 million in budget cuts at the agency by the end of September, but critics disagree.
The FAA has not shared details on the controller staffing cut with the airlines, the carriers said, adding that the industry has been asking the FAA for information for months, yet only received a basic outline last week.
Air travelers are being told to brace for a surge in canceled flights in addition to flight delays that could total more than 6,000 a day, according to Airlines for America, the trade group that represents U.S. airlines. To put that figure into perspective, there were almost 3,000 flight delays on the worst severe-weather day last year, said Nicholas Calio, president and chief executive officer of the airline industry group.
Delays could reach up to four hours at some hub airports affecting 1 out of 3 passengers, Airlines for America said it was told by the FAA.
The staffing cuts are "illegal, irresponsible and most of all unnecessary," Calio said Friday. "We asked the FAA to hit the pause button," but the agency "is choosing to ignore it has the power to stop this," he said.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which is the union that represents FAA controllers, said the aviation system is being used as a "political football" in the budget fight.
The FAA has warned that it will issue ground stops, which are orders preventing flights from taking off to certain destinations and airspace flow programs that restrict the number of planes on flight corridors. Both are tools to control capacity and maintain a high level of safety, officials said. They are customarily used during severe weather to slow down the air traffic system.
But now the procedures will be activated as the result of empty seats in airport control towers and at radar screens at FAA facilities that handle low-altitude traffic near major metropolitan areas as well as en route centers that manage high-altitude traffic traversing the national airspace, officials said.
The FAA has not released specific figures on projected flight delays at Midway Airport caused by the controller furloughs. But the Midway delays "are expected on average to be significantly shorter than O'Hare delays," FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said.
Midway also faces the possible closure of its tower during overnight hours because of sequestration, the FAA has said, but a decision hasn't been announced.
The airlines and an airline pilots union Friday took the FAA to court seeking to halt the controller staffing cuts for 30 days, arguing that air traffic control is an essential service. But staffing reductions began Sunday, and an initial court ruling is not expected until later this week.
The airlines are asking customers to voice opposition to the FAA's controller staffing cuts at http://www.dontgroundamerica.com.
The FAA recently delayed its decision to close 149 air traffic towers at smaller airports until June, from early April as originally planned. Those towers are operated by private companies for the FAA, while the controllers working at major airports are FAA employees.
In the meantime, the airlines also are blasting the FAA for providing only minimal information about the staffing cuts and the expected impact, leaving the airline industry helpless to plan for contingencies.
Officials for the airlines say they have been left with no option except to tell their customers to call ahead or check their flights before heading to the airport.
"Unfortunately, the FAA has not yet provided specific details to the airlines, making it difficult to communicate exactly how customers will be affected," said American Airlines spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan in Chicago.
In addition to O'Hare, airports that will be most affected by the sequestration cuts and ground delay programs are John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia in New York, Newark Liberty International in New Jersey, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, Los Angeles International, San Francisco International, Philadelphia International, as well as airports in Charlotte, N.C., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Miami, Minneapolis and San Diego, the FAA forecast.
Bad weather could make the staffing-induced delays even worse, the FAA said.
Sunday is normally one of the slower travel days of the week at this time of year. But if delays begin to mount Monday, "it will not be very long before the system comes to a grinding halt," predicted Lee Moak, president of the Airline Pilots Association and a captain for a major airline.
"Safety will not be compromised," Moak said. "But whoever is making the decision in the administration (to furlough controllers), they are using it as a political football."
Other critics of the FAA's action said the agency could have slashed its budget without inconveniencing the flying public by furloughing air traffic controllers. They said the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration implemented cuts without furloughing frontline employees.
"The FAA's management of sequestration is quickly going from bad to worse," said U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "We know the FAA has the flexibility to reduce costs elsewhere, such as contracts, travel, supplies and consultants, or to apply furloughs in a manner that better protects the most critical air-traffic control facilities.''
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