By Felicia Sonmez and Lori Aratani
Hundreds of air traffic control towers could be closed, and travelers could face flight delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours — a result of $600 million in cuts expected to hit the Federal Aviation Administration on March 1, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned in a surprise appearance at Friday’s White House briefing.
LaHood said the impact on the country’s infrastructure would be “enormous.” He said he expected that layoffs and delays could begin at airports across the country around April 1 — and once those began — Congress could expect to hear about it.
.“Nobody likes a delay,” he said. “Nobody likes waiting in line. None of us do. If we can’t get our hamburger within five minutes, if we can’t get on the plane within 30, 40, 50 minutes after going through, you know what happens — they start calling their member of Congress.”
The millions of dollars of cuts to the FAA are among those anticipated when the across-the-board spending cuts known as the “sequester” take effect next Friday. Those cuts were put into motion by the August 2011 debt ceiling deal, and while both parties have been calling for action to avert them, there have been few signs of progress during the past week’s congressional recess.
With the vast majority of the Federal Aviation Administration’s nearly 47,000 employees likely to be furloughed one day per two-week pay period until the end of the fiscal year in September, officials would be forced to pare back operations.
LaHood said more than 100 air traffic control towers could be closed including two in Virginia — Manassas and Lynchburg regional airports — and five in Maryland including nearby Frederick Municipal Airport. Also on the list: Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville — home of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (R). Overnight shifts at more than 60 towers across the country could also be eliminated.
Jolene Berry, senior airport operations at Manassas, said the airport will be able to operate, but the closure is still a big deal. “We have a lot more traffic than other airports — a lot of corporate jets coming in and out and several flight schools,” she said. “We greatly depend on the tower and FAA personnel to manage the traffic that we have. The tower is an added safety measure, an extra set of eyes for landing and departing traffic.”
The effects would ripple through bigger airports as well. LaHood said flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays of up to 90 minutes because fewer air controllers will be on staff.
Travelers will also likely face delays getting through airport security. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said the cuts would force the Transportation Security Administration to initiate a hiring freeze for all transportation security officer positions in March, eliminate overtime and furlough its 50,000 officers for up to seven days.
A report on the impact of sequestration by Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee predicted those cutbacks could add as much as an hour to to current passenger wait times at the nation’s busiest airports. The same report said international travelers could also face wait times of three to four hours because of cuts to the number of customs officers.
“Sequester will cripple air transportation, causing ripple effects across the economy and costing us jobs we can’t afford to lose.” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.). “These are real impacts in real communities with real consequences.”
Airlines are also preparing for possible disruptions in their schedules. Airlines for America, a trade group for the nation’s leading airlines, said they will meet with the FAA and member airlines to plan for potential cutbacks. But they also urged legislators to act quickly.
“Air transportation is a key driver of our economy, and should not be used as a political football,” said Jean Medina, the group’s spokeswoman. “We urge Congress and the Administration to work together to ensure that the two million customers and 50,000 tons of cargo that fly every day can continue to get to their destinations safely and efficiently.”
Virginia Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Reps. Gerald E. Connolly (D) and James P. Moran (D) are expected to hold a briefing on Monday at Reagan National Airport to talk about the impact of sequestration on airport operations and the local economy.
Even as LaHood painted a dire picture of the consequences of sequestration, a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll released Thursday shows that most Americans have heard little to nothing about the expected cuts. Only 27 percent of those surveyed said they had heard “a lot” about them. Public opinion about the impact of the expected cuts also remains divided.