By Jeff Plungis and Alan Levin
Flights at major airports in cities including New York, Chicago and San Francisco could be delayed as long as 90 minutes if automatic U.S. spending cuts take effect on March 1, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.
The Federal Aviation Administration will furlough air- traffic controllers beginning April 1, LaHood said yesterday. More than 230 towers at smaller airports, including some with regional-airline flights, may be closed, according to a posting on the FAA website.
LaHood outlined the consequences of budget cuts that could inconvenience millions of travelers at a White House briefing where he criticized congressional Republicans who are in a showdown with President Barack Obama and Democrats over reducing the deficit. Without at least a stop-gap agreement by March 1, $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, will take effect at U.S. agencies.
“I think Republicans need to step up here,” said LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois. “This requires compromise. This requires Republicans stepping forward with some ideas about how to keep essential services of government running at the level that people have been accustomed to.”
Under the sequestration plan, half the reductions would come from defense and half from other agencies. In addition to air-traffic restrictions, cuts may result in delays in production permits for oil and gas drilling, shorter opening hours at national parks, and the closing of meat plants the Agriculture Department wouldn’t be able to inspect.
The federal budget reductions would threaten recovering state economies, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin said.
“We’re in an economic recovery, let’s not blow it,” Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Association, said at a news conference in Washington.
LaHood stressed potential hardships for airlines and their passengers.
“It’s going to be very painful for the flying public,” LaHood said. “This is going to have an enormous impact.”
LaHood is creating needless alarm when it’s not clear that furloughs will be necessary, House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania and other senior congressional Republicans said in a statement.
“Prematurely outlining the potential impacts before identifying other savings is not helpful,” according to the statement from Shuster, New Jersey Representative Frank LoBiondo and South Dakota Senator John Thune.
“Today’s exaggerations are not backed up by any real financial data,” the lawmakers said. “The agency is well positioned to absorb spending reductions without compromising the safety or efficiency of the National Airspace System.”
LaHood said his staff was providing information on the agency’s projections to Airlines for America, the Washington- based trade group representing carriers including Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL) and United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL)
“Once airlines see the potential impact of these furloughs, we expect that they will change their schedules and cancel flights,” LaHood said.
The department started talks yesterday with air-traffic controller unions about plans for reducing operating hours at some towers and closing others, LaHood said.
“Safety is always the top priority of air traffic controllers, but the reality is this — safety will be preserved at the expense of operations across the country,” Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said in a statement.
“Once towers are closed, the airports they serve may be next,” Rinaldi said. “We believe the delay estimates provided by the FAA are conservative and the potential for disruptions could be much higher.”
The FAA could eliminate overnight shifts at 72 towers and regional radar rooms, according to a list posted by the agency. Locations on that roster include the main airport in California’s capital, Sacramento; DuPage Airport in West Chicago, Illinois; and Boeing Field/King County International in Seattle.
Fifty-four of the 72 already met FAA guidelines for closing during those periods because of low traffic, according to agency data compiled by Bloomberg. The FAA has been thwarted in previous attempts to close towers and radar rooms at little-used airports by pressure from members of Congress, Bloomberg News reported last year.
The tower at Tri-State Milton J. Ferguson Field in Huntington, West Virginia, was among the air-traffic facilities listed by the FAA for possible closing. The tower is staffed around the clock while having too few flights to be open at night under U.S. guidelines.
LaHood said the government won’t compromise safety as cutbacks take effect. Having fewer controllers on duty at major airports will ripple across the country, forcing airlines to adjust schedules, he said.
“It’s not possible to continue the same schedules with less people,” he said.
The FAA, the agency with the most employees at the Transportation Department, will absorb about $600 million of the department’s $1 billion automatic cut, LaHood said.
Passengers in smaller U.S. cities will suffer from shift reductions or even airport closings, Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, said in a statement. Regional carriers provide the only service to 470 U.S. airports, and about half of all U.S. flights, Cohen said.
“The government is playing an irresponsible game of chicken, with no winners,” Cohen said. “The traveling and shipping public will be the losers.”
Spokesmen Trebor Banstetter of Delta, Mike Trevino of AMR Corp. (AAMRQ)’s American Airlines and Christen David of United Airlines referred calls seeking comment to Airlines for America.
“Air transportation is a key driver of our economy, and should not be used as a political football,” Airlines for America said in a statement. Airlines and the FAA “will be meeting soon to plan for any potential cutbacks,” it said.
One of the airports that may be scheduled to close overnight, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire, has 17 scheduled Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV) flights a day. It’s too early to assess the impact at individual airports, said Brandy King, a spokeswoman for the Dallas-based company.
“We are currently working to determine the government’s contingency plans and, as you know, federal leaders may ultimately avoid sequestration altogether,” King said.
United, Delta and US Airways Group Inc. (LCC) also serve Manchester with daily flights.
Golden Triangle Regional Airport in Columbus, Mississippi, has three daily flights by Delta Connection, a regional partner for Atlanta-based Delta, said Mike Hainsey, the facility’s executive director.
The flights would continue if the control tower is closed in what’s known as an “uncontrolled airfield,” he said. Pilots operating without a control tower use the airport’s designated radio frequency to announce their movements on the ground and in the air, and are on their own to stay alert for other planes.
“We understand budget issues, but we’re concerned about the impact,” Hainsey said. “The control tower gives us an additional margin of safety.”
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