Brace for delays at O'Hare

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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