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US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday that looming automatic budget cuts will force air traffic control cutbacks and cause flight delays in major cities by up to 90 minutes.
LaHood said the $85 billion "sequester" cuts scheduled for March 1 will compel the Federal Aviation Administration to reduce airport staffing around the country, shutting towers at smaller airports and causing a general slowdown of civil aviation operations.
"Sequester will have a very serious impact on the transportation services that are critical to the traveling public and to the nation's economy," LaHood told reporters at the White House.
At the Department of Transportation, he said, spending will be reduced by nearly $1 billion, including $600 million at the FAA for the March-September period.
That means the FAA will furlough -- mandate unpaid leave -- most of its 47,000 workers for between two and four days each month beginning in April, LaHood said.
That will mean less air traffic control services at large and small airports around the country, likely forcing flight schedule changes and slowdowns by airlines.
"Once airlines see the potential impact of these furloughs, we expect that they will change their schedules and cancel flights."
"Obviously, as always, safety is our top priority, and we will never allow the amount of air travel we can handle safely to take off and land -- which means travelers should expect delays," LaHood warned.
In a letter to airline and airport managers around the country, LaHood said the cutbacks will mean the elimination of midnight shifts in 30 secondary airports like El Paso, Texas and Chicago's Midway, and the closure of traffic control towers at 100 smaller airports.
The FAA will have to reduce equipment maintenance and support as well.
As a consequence, "travelers should expect delays," he said in the letter.
"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."
The sequester -- harsh automatic spending cuts over 10 years agreed in a 2011 political deal to force deficit reduction -- will take effect on March 1 if Democrats and Republicans cannot compromise on a less austere program before then.
President Barack Obama wants to replace the cuts with a balanced set of spending cuts and revenue hikes obtained by closing tax loopholes, but Republicans in Congress are resisting the idea of higher taxes.
Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airlines Association, said the FAA service reductions would deeply harm hundreds of communities dependent on regional airline flights.
"The government is playing an irresponsible game of chicken -- with no winners -- and the traveling and shipping public will be the losers," Cohen said in a statement.
Passengers will be hurt by shift reductions or outright closing of airports on one end of regional flights, he said, and suffer delays and missed connections at major hubs "where regional airlines account for more than half the daily flights."