FAA furloughs keeping some air travelers waiting

Planning to travel by air any time soon? Better check that the flight is on time. With the nation’s 15,000 air controllers now subject to furloughs as part of the government spending cuts, the FAA says planes may need to take off and land less frequently.

As part of the automatic spending cuts that went into effect earlier this spring, but just hitting the FAA this week all agency employees, including air traffic controllers, will lose one day of work every other week. That means fewer controllers in the towers and fewer flights will be allowed to take off and land so the remaining employers aren’t overwhelmed.

While few delays were reported by the flight tracking website FlightAware on Sunday – the first day of the furloughs – that wasn’t the case on Monday. FlightAware reported that 20 percent of all flights on Monday morning from LaGuardia International in New York were delayed more than 15 minutes; a week ago, only 2 percent of flights were delayed.

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents airlines, says furloughs and the resulting delays were unnecessary. Nicolas Calio, the group’s president and CEO, says other departments, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration were able to comply with their 10 percent cuts mandated by the sequester without furloughing workers on the frontline.

“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,” he says. “We continue to believe that the FAA has other means to reach a 10 percent budget reduction than to impact the traveling public. When a company needs to make a 10 percent budget reduction, the answer is not to make it is so inefficient that no one wants to do business with it anymore. That’s essentially what the FAA is proposing, and in doing so harming the 2 million passengers and shippers that fund two-thirds of its budget.”

Beyond causing trouble for travelers, some tourist leaders are concerned delayed flights may cause some people to alter their summer vacation plans. Michael McCormick, executive director and chief operating officer for the Global Business Travel Association, which represents 6,000 business travel buyers and sellers, sent an open letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta telling him the furloughs will be a disaster for travelers and the businesses who depend on them.

“Our nation’s economy and businesses will pay a very steep price that significantly outstrips savings produced by furloughs,” he says.

With the FAA anticipating delays at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta and Chicago O’Hare of up to 210 minutes, McCormick says many travelers will miss their connecting flights. “If these disruptions unfold as predicted, business travelers will stay home, severely impacting not only the travel industry but the economy overall. It is just that simple,” he says.

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