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Air traffic controllers issue dire warning for budget sequester

Top officials of the Transportation Department and the Federal Aviation Administration have warned of serious delays for air travelers under the shrunken federal budget dictated by the so-called sequester—but one key organization with no political agenda of its own is warning that things could be much worse than those official predictions.

The sequester took effect March 1, which was also the first day that President Obama and Congressional leaders were scheduled to meet for a discussion of alternatives to the steep across-the-board cuts in the budgets of all federal departments and agencies.

With the deadline looming, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta sent a letter to a number of aviation organizations advising that travelers will get a little breathing room—the mandatory furloughing of government workers and the shut-down of some facilities won’t start until April.

But when they do begin, the officials said, FAA employees—including air traffic controllers, safety inspectors and others—will be furloughed for one or two days per pay period; midnight shifts for air traffic control will be ended at more than 60 towers around the U.S.; and control towers will be shuttered altogether at 100 low-volume airports that handle fewer than 10,000 commercial flights per year.

As a result, “Travelers should expect delays,” the letter said. “Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because we will have fewer controllers on staff…We also expect that as airlines estimate the potential impacts of these furloughs, they will change their schedules and cancel flights.” And that warning doesn’t take into account cutbacks to Transportation Security Administration staffing that will slow down the inspection process for travelers as well.

But an analysis of the situation by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) says even worse things could be in store for air travelers.

If no budget solution is reached and the FAA goes ahead with the planned cuts and furloughs in April, “the FAA’s estimates (of the impact on travelers) could turn out to be conservative,“ NATCA said in a white paper. Based on its own survey of major air traffic control facilities, “We have determined that reduced numbers of controllers around the country will cause a ripple effect on delays,” NATCA said. “Major airports could be forced to shut down a runway that would otherwise be open simply because they’ll have fewer controllers in towers.”

As an example, the group said that if one runway has to be shut down at Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson Airport, the number of arriving flights there during good weather would have to be reduced by 24 percent, from the usual 126 flights per hour to 96. “In both Chicago and Houston, under ideal weather conditions and using two runways instead of three, the hourly arrival rate could fall by 37 percent. Other major airports would experience similar reductions, NATCA said. “Taken together, these reductions will add up to a national airspace facing significant delays throughout the system.”

Michael McCormick, executive director of the Global Business Travel Association, warned last week that “even the potential for significant disruptions in air travel is seriously disruptive to businesses…Nothing could be worse for commerce and the nation’s economic recovery.”

Market Place