Shippers should expect delays receiving air cargo moving through major airports in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York after the U.S. Department of Transportation and its Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday began to furlough air traffic controllers as promised to make good on forced budget cuts that hit the entire government in March.
Critics said the Obama administration is using the reductions in air traffic control hours to put political pressure on Republicans for not accepting tax increases as part of a long-term debt reduction plan when other expenses with less immediate effect on the traveling public were available for elimination. The airline industry on Friday sued the federal government to stop the furloughs.
DOT officials said Thursday they had no choice but to cut air traffic control staff by 10 percent to meet the FAA's requirement to save 5 percent of its budget, or $637 million, through the end of September. The FAA has about 47,000 employees, including 15,000 air traffic controllers.
Some departments such as Homeland Security recently won a partial reprieve in the six-month budget passed by Congress earlier this month which allowed them more flexibility in how to structure the across-the-board cuts. Homeland Security officials lifted a ban on overtime pay and canceled scheduled furloughs for Customs officers at ports of entry so as not to impact international trade and travel. The bill also included more money for Transportation Security Administration security officers, which has kept passengers moving smoothly through airport checkpoints to board flights.
The FAA told airline industry representatives in a meeting last week about its plans, including scaling back flight operations without regard to conditions to keep from overwhelming controllers remaining on duty. Spreading out takeoffs and landings could reduce flight arrivals by 40 percent at some airports, industry officials said.
The FAA furloughs could lead to flight delays of more than three hours in Atlanta, but DOT officials at a media briefing estimated the average delay would be 11 minutes. Delays are expected to average 20 minutes up to a high of 51 minutes at Newark International Airport in New Jersey; 12 minutes at John F. Kennedy International Airport up to a maximum of 50 minutes; 30 minutes up to maximum of 80 minutes at LaGuardia Airport in New York; 10 minutes up to a high of 67 minutes at Los Angeles International Airport; and 50 minutes on average with a high of 132 minutes at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, according to the Associated Press
and other news organizations
Airports in Miami; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; San Diego; Philadelphia; and San Francisco, as well as Chicago's Midway Airport are also expected to experience significant delays, but officials didn't provide estimates on how long those delays might be, the AP
The one-day of unpaid leave for controllers each pay period will require shutdowns of runways at some airports, and closure of one of two towers at O'Hare, forcing planes to stay aloft longer until a controller is available to guide them in.
Rep. Bud Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, blasted the administration for how it was implementing the cuts through sequestration, the process set up two years ago by Congress and the administration as a draconian ax designed to motivate both sides to agree on a debt-reduction plan when massive spending cuts couldn't be agreed on during the debt ceiling crisis.
"Given that the FAA’s budget increased more than 100 percent over the last 15 years, finding 5 percent in savings shouldn’t need to significantly impact our nation’s aviation operations. Businesses and families across the country face these issues in their budgets every day without massive impacts. We know that 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. Yet rather than take this approach, the Administration has made choices that appear designed to have the greatest possible impact on the travelling public.
“What’s perhaps most troubling is that the FAA has known about the sequester for almost two years and gave Congress and the airline industry less than a week’s notice about its implementation plans. This disregard for the American public is indicative that the Administration views the sequester as an attempt to score political points rather than address real issues and find real savings in a bloated federal bureaucracy,” the chairman said.
Shuster's office said the FAA should look first for savings from almost $500 million in contracts for consultants, $325 million in supplies and travel, and $143 million to operate 46 FAA aircraft.
On Friday, Airlines for America, the trade organization representing major U.S. airlines, filed a motion in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington seeking a stay in the FAA's workforce reduction plan. The A4A said the FAA discretion to adjust where the budget cuts fall, noting that when the FAA had to shut down for two weeks in 2012 because Congress had yet to authorize its budget it did so without furloughing any air traffic controllers. The A4A is also pushing for legislation that would deem air traffic controllers essential and therefore not subject them to furlough, as has been determined in the past. And the airlines are asking the administration to delay furloughs for 30 days to allow passage of the legislation, noting the FAA recently delayed its decision to close contract towers for many small airports after being sued by several communities and that the national airspace system should receive a similar reprieve.
The Airline Pilots Association and Regional Airline Association joined the A4A's motion.
"The math simply does not work, and it's irresponsible to suggest that a 10 percent reduction of air traffic control hours should mean 40 percent fewer flights can arrive on time," A4A President Nicholas Calio said in a statement. "It's unjust, unnecessary and completely irresponsible.
"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 said. “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.”
The A4A is calling on the public to join its "Don'tGroundAmerica.com" campaign and send letters to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and members of Congress to end the furloughs and prevent damage to the economy. - Eric Kulisch