FAA Steps Up Flight Delay Warnings as Furloughs Are Challenged in Court

Travelers stand in a long line at Los Angeles International Airport Monday. Travelers stand in a long line at Los Angeles International Airport Monday. Damian Dovarganes/AP

The Federal Aviation Administration expanded last week’s warnings of flight delays at major airports due to furloughs of air traffic controllers, prompting a legal challenge from industry and pilots groups along with skepticism from Republicans in Congress who backed sequestration.

On Sunday, “there were approximately 400 delays in the system attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough,” the FAA said in a statement Monday. “The FAA is implementing traffic management initiatives at airports and facilities around the country. Travelers can expect to see a wide range of delays that will change throughout the day depending on staffing and weather-related issues.”

Areas hardest hit, the FAA said, include New York City, Dallas-Fort Worth, Jacksonville and Los Angeles. “Controllers will space planes farther apart so they can manage traffic with current staff, which will lead to delays at airports including New York’s La Guardia Airport,” the statement added. “The FAA is working with the airlines throughout the day to try and minimize delays for travelers."

FAA’s website now features an interactive map with updates on where the delays are clustered.

Meanwhile, the industry group Airlines for America on Friday took the legal step of filing a motion for a stay in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, seeking a 30-day delay in the furloughs and legislation for a long-term preventative measure. President and CEO Nicholas Calio said the agency has greater flexibility to avoid the cuts than it acknowledges. “The math simply does not work, and it is irresponsible to suggest that a 10 percent reduction of air traffic control hours should mean 40 percent fewer flights can arrive on time,” Calio said. “It’s unjust, unnecessary and completely irresponsible.”

Other industry groups backed the suit, including the Air Line Pilots Association, International. “This is a unique situation,” said its president Capt. Lee Moak. “ Our entire aviation system will struggle to maintain normality due to furloughs of these essential workers. The economic viability of our country depends on this mode of transportation; everyone will be affected.”

The groups were joined by the Regional Airline Association, which said in a statement that “the impact on our industry sector, especially our 160 million annual passengers, cannot be overstated.” Regional airlines operate at least a quarter of the flights at each of the 14 airports FAA has identified for high operational delays, it said, “and at four of the eight most impacted airports, regionals fly more than one half the daily flights: Chicago O’Hare (64 percent), Minneapolis-St. Paul (54 percent), New York LaGuardia (52 percent) and Newark Liberty (51 percent).”

Airlines for America has set up a Web-based campaign (www.DontGroundAmerica.com), that asks airline customers, employees, families and friends to write to President Obama, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to end the furloughs immediately.

One such letter was written on Friday by the Alexandria, Va.-based Global Business Travel Association, warning of lost jobs and cancelled business conferences. “GBTA clearly understands the requirements of sequestration,” wrote the group’s executive director Michael McCormick. “But we are very much alarmed by the list of airports and the expected delays. With Hartsfield-Jackson expected to see maximum delays of 210 minutes and Chicago O’Hare close behind, the impacted airports is a veritable hit list on the business travel industry. This policy will produce missed connections and widespread flight cancellations. If these disruptions unfold as predicted, business travelers will stay home, severely impacting not only the travel industry but the economy overall. It is just that simple."

On Capitol Hill, a top aide to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sent out a Twitter item saying the FAA was making the furloughs as painful as possible. That charge was denied on Monday by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

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