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Travelers brace for delays as FAA imposes furloughs, lawmakers decry 'stunt'

AP

Travelers could be in for longer waits at the airport this week, after the Federal Aviation Administration imposed furloughs on air traffic controllers despite claims by some lawmakers that the agency could have complied with the sequester in other ways. 

The FAA went ahead with the furloughs on Sunday, citing the automatic budget cuts that went into effect last month. Some delays appeared in the late evening in and around New York, and according to the FAA were spreading on Monday. 

The FAA said in a statement that travelers can expect to see "a wide range of delays that will change throughout the day depending on staffing and weather related issues." It cited "staffing challenges" at airports in Dallas-Fort Worth, Jacksonville, New York and Los Angeles. 

"The FAA is working with the airlines throughout the day to try and minimize delays for travelers," the statement said. 

Last week, the FAA confirmed that it was going ahead with the furloughs despite testimony from the head of the Transportation Security Administration that the TSA had been able to avoid furloughs in that agency. 

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said last week that the FAA "has made zero effort" to avoid the furloughs. 

"The FAA's decision is a dangerous political stunt that could jeopardize the safety and security of air travelers," he said in a statement. 

The FAA has estimated there could be flight delays of about 90 minutes during peak periods. 

Coburn claimed the FAA has failed to make "smart cuts" to avoid this outcome. He suggested the agency could reduce spending on "consultants, supplies and travel" by 15 percent, saving $105 million. He also claimed the agency could save much more than that by trimming a grant program for airport improvements. 

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Thursday the furloughs were necessary. He said FAA officials could find no other way to cut $637 million from the agency's budget as required by the sequester. FAA officials have said they have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 agency employees, including nearly 15,000 controllers. 

Each employee will lose one day of work every other week. The FAA has said that planes will have to take off and land less frequently, so as not to overload the remaining controllers on duty. 

Information from the FAA and others showed that flying Sunday was largely uneventful, with most flights on time. There were delays in parts of Florida, but those were caused by thunderstorms. 

The trade group Airlines for America, which represents the airlines and had predicted a big traffic snarl, says it will continue to monitor the situation. 

Mark Duell at the flight tracking website FlightAware said that John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York indicated delays due to lower staffing starting late Sunday evening. 

JFK averaged 70-minute delays for inbound flights, but no detectable departure delays. LaGuardia averaged 74-minute delays for inbound flights, and departure delays of 37 minutes. 

The FAA website said that flights from Philadelphia and Orlando, Fla.,  into John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Westchester County airports were delayed due to staffing issues. 

The trade group Airlines for America, which represents the airlines and had predicted a big traffic snarl, said Sunday evening that it was "not seeing a significant impact at this point." 

A spokeswoman said the group would continue to monitor the situation, and urged flyers to stay in contact with their airlines. 

Delays were also affecting travelers in Los Angeles. The FAA said late Sunday night that staffing cuts were causing delays averaging more than three hours for flights arriving at Los Angeles International Airport. The agency did not say how many flights were affected. 

Airport spokesman Marshall Lowe said about 70 flights had delays of about an hour or more Sunday, but he could not say what role the staffing cuts played in the delays. 

The FAA said that "relatively good weather" and light traffic, which is typical of Sundays, helped keep delays in check. The agency said it would be working with airlines "to minimize the delay impacts of lower staffing" as the busy summer travel season approaches. 

Friday, airline trade groups and the country's biggest pilots union sued the FAA to try to stop the furloughs. They predicted that the furloughs would delay or cancel flights for as many as one out of every three airline passengers across the country. 

Airlines have also directed their customers to tell the FAA to find other ways to cut costs. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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