Controller Furloughs Causing Major Travel Delays

Sequester’s impact felt as FAA cuts take effect.

Air Traffic Controllers

Air Traffic Controllers

As the impact of sequester-related controller furloughs begins to put a chokehold on air travel around the country, the FAA is implementing a special traffic management program to deal with a "wide range of delays" that the agency said is hitting New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas today.

Automatic federal spending cuts forced the FAA to start furloughing air traffic controllers on Sunday. That decision led to hundreds of flight cancellations yesterday and today as the impact from thousands of delays rippled across the country. Yesterday more than 1,200 airline delays were attributed to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough, the FAA said. Hardest hit were New York’s LaGuardia and JFK, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, and Chicago’s Midway and O’Hare.

As a result of the furloughs, about 10 percent of controllers will be absent from their jobs each day at least through September. The FAA is warning that on bad weather days flight delays could have a crippling effect on airline and private fliers alike.

Who’s to blame? Democrats and Republicans are pointing fingers at each other.

House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement that “the Administration has made choices that appear designed to have the greatest possible impact on the traveling public.” Republicans in Congress objected to the furlough plan, and they have argued that the White House should have stepped in to prevent the cuts.

White House spokesman Jay Carney countered that furloughs were inevitable because 71 percent of the FAA’s budget comes from personnel. “This is a result of sequester that was never meant to be law,” Carney said. “These furloughs, that's the unfortunate fact of arbitrary, across-the-board cuts like this.”

Leaders of a dozen aviation groups including NBAA, AOPA and the Air Line Pilots Association, meanwhile, appealed to the government to find a way to keep controllers on the job. They have joined together to ask the White House to step in to end the furloughs to “maintain a safe and efficient National Airspace System.”

“Without action,” the leaders said in a joint statement, “it will be challenging for air traffic to continue to operate at its rate of high efficiency. We are hopeful that the FAA will be given the same flexibility as other agencies to prevent the furloughs of essential personnel.”

The Air Line Pilots Association and airline groups on Friday filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington to halt the controller furlough plan. Hearings in the case are scheduled to start this week.