By Ben Mutzabaugh, Larry Copeland, Nancy Trejos and Bart Jansen
It was a frustrating Monday for thousands of fliers as wind, snow, maintenance and the effects of automatic federal budget cuts that have furloughed some air-traffic controllers disrupted flights at some of the USA’s busiest airports.
The three big New York City-area airports — delay-prone in the best of circumstances — had borne the brunt of delays as of 7 p.m. ET. But problems were felt at airports across the East and — by 7 p.m. ET — the West.
At Los Angeles, Baltimore/Washington, Charlotte and Washington Dulles, controller “staffing” was the dominant issue. Delays were sporadic, though grew to as long as two hours at times.
In Florida, where delays affected flights at about a half-dozen airports, thunderstorms were mostly to blame for delays at airports like Miami and Orlando. And winds slowed Philadelphia flights and added a double-whammy to operations at New York LaGuardia and Newark Liberty. At JFK, maintenance projects on runways and taxiways created backups.
And Old Man Winter refused to relinquish his grip on late-April fliers, with snow and ice creating delays in Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul as of 7:15 p.m. ET, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight-delay map.
But it was the delays from the air traffic control furloughs that grabbed headlines across the country. The furloughs took effect Sunday. FAA chief Michael Huerta previously warned they could create major flight delays at the busiest times at the country’s busiest airports.
The worst-cast scenario from the “staffing” delays didn’t materialize on Monday, but it was far from a good scenario today (April 22) as far as flight disruptions were concerned.
Ian Gregor, spokesman for the FAA’s Pacific Division, warned the congestion and and volume delays were likely to be an ongoing concern in the days ahead.
“As a result of employee furloughs due to sequestration, the FAA is implementing traffic management initiatives at airports and facilities around the country,” he said in a statement. “Travelers can expect to see a wide range of delays that will change throughout the day depending on staffing and weather related issues.”
“For example, the FAA is experiencing staffing challenges at New York Center and TRACON, Fort Worth Center, Jacksonville Center and Los Angeles Center,” he added. “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 FAA is working with the airlines throughout the day to try and minimize delays for travelers. We encourage all travelers to check their flight status and also to visit fly.faa.gov for the latest airport delay information.”
Gregor said there were about 400 delays nationwide on Sunday, the first day that controllers faced furloughs. As many predicted, today’s busier weekday schedule presented a bigger challenge.
Many fliers said they headed to the airport expecting the worst.
Ron Ferguson, 57, of Jupiter, Fla., said he gave himself “plenty of time” this morning at the West Palm Beach airport.
“I got in the frequent-flier line early because I understood Monday was going to be the day with sequestration,” he said. “But it was a lot better than I thought it was going to be.
Ferguson said he’s still concerned about his return flight on Friday. “I will get to the airport early, because I understand there could be delays or long lines here,” he said.
Others were less lucky.
Kenneth Gross, an attorney who lives in Washington, D.C, said his US Airways Shuttle flight was scheduled to take off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport for Reagan Washington National Airport at 9 a.m. Monday. The aircraft was more than an hour late arriving from D.C., he said. The gate agents told passengers it was because of air traffic control delays.
When the aircraft arrived in New York, he and other passengers boarded. By then, there was a long line of planes waiting to take off and his plane sat on the runway for more than an hour. He arrived in D.C. after 12 p.m, nearly three hours late.
“A total delay of over three hours for a shuttle flight that should take 37 minutes in the air,” he said. “It was ridiculous. It’s frustrating that it’s the result of sequestration.”
Connecticut resident Kevin Dahl, 38, project manager for a waste water operator, flew from West Palm Beach to New York LaGuardia this morning but sat on the tarmac for about 45 minutes after landing.
“They said there was no gate available,” he said.
Was it sequestration related?
“That’s what the thinking was,” he said, raising the possibility that planes unable to depart from LaGuardia may have led to a shortage of gates for arriving aircraft.
Airlines also have been sounding the alarm over the furloughs, with nearly every big airline warning fliers to brace for problems — particularly at a few of the USA’s busiest airports where the worst disruptions were expected.
Many also have urged customers to contact their Congressional representatives via a website titled “DON’T GROUND AMERICA.”
One big carrier — Alaska Airlines — has even went as far as to waive rebooking fees at one of its busier airports, citing the threat of “FAA Furloughs” as the cause. The airline says customers ticketed through Los Angeles International — one of the airports predicted to see a pronounced effect of any furlough-related delays — can rebook without penalty if they were ticketed to fly through there between Sunday and Tuesday.
“In response to sequestration budget cuts, Alaska Airlines is recommending that customers check the status of their flight before leaving for the airport and allow additional time to check in when traveling to or from Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Newark, San Diego and San Francisco,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement issued on Saturday. “The Federal Aviation Administration plans to furlough air traffic controllers starting Sunday, which the agency predicts could cause extensive ground delays ranging from 50 minutes to two hours and a reduction in flight arrivals of 30% to 40% at certain airports.”
Federal transportation officials reiterated late last week their warnings about hours-long delays that could show up this week during the busiest times at the country’s busiest airports because federal spending cuts forced furloughs for air-traffic controllers.
They said the worst delays, which they predicted would ebb and flow with daily traffic, are expected at 13 hubs: JFK, LaGuardia and Newark in the New York area; Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco; O’Hare and Midway in Chicago; Miami and Fort Lauderdale; Atlanta; Philadelphia and Charlotte.
To prevent planes from stacking up during busy times at those hubs, the Federal Aviation Administration will hold planes at their originating airports or order them to take circuitous routes, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said last week.
The worst delays could be 210 minutes for flights headed to Atlanta, 132 minutes for flights to O’Hare and 80 minutes to LaGuardia, Huerta said. A whole runway could be taken out of action at Atlanta or O’Hare for lack of staffing, he said.
The worst delays for flights to Los Angeles are projected at 67 minutes and about 50 minutes for flights to JFK and Newark, he said.
“We are not going to sacrifice safety,” said Huerta, who said weather could cause even worse delays. “There are about a dozen airports that will see heavy to moderate delays, which could be similar to what we would experience during a significant summer thunderstorm.”