NEW YORK – A day after flight delays plagued much of the nation, air travel was smoother Tuesday, but the government warned passengers that the situation could change by the hour as thousands of air-traffic controllers are forced to take furloughs because of budget cuts.
Meanwhile, airlines and members of Congress urged the Federal Aviation Administration to find other ways to reduce spending. Airlines are worried about the long-term costs late flights will have on their budgets and on passengers.
“I just can’t imagine this stays in place for an extended period of time. It’s just such terrible policy,” US Airways CEO Doug Parker said. “We can handle it for a little while, but it can’t continue.”
The delays are the most visible effect yet of Congress and the White House’s failure to agree on a long-term deficit-reduction plan.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said no one should be surprised, noting that he warned about the potential for problems two months ago.
His solution: Blame Congress for the larger budget cuts that affected all of government, including a $600 million hit to the Federal Aviation Administration.
“This has nothing to do with politics,” LaHood said. “This is very bad policy that Congress passed, and they should fix it.”
Critics of the FAA insist the agency could reduce its budget in other ways that would not inconvenience travelers.
In the past five years, the FAA’s operating budget has grown by 10.4 percent while the number of domestic commercial flights has fallen 13 percent.
“There’s no cause for this. It’s a cheap political stunt,” said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant who does work for the major airlines.
The FAA says the numbers aren’t so clear-cut. In that time, the government has signed a new, more expensive contract with air traffic controllers, added 400 new aviation safety inspectors and beefed up its payroll to deploy a new air traffic control computer system.
So given the budget cuts, FAA officials say they now have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 agency employees – including nearly 15,000 controllers – because salaries make up 70 percent of the agency’s budget. Each employee will lose one day of work every two weeks.
Planes will have to take off and land less frequently so as not to overload the remaining controllers on duty.
About 400 delays piled up Sunday and another 1,200 Monday that were linked to the furloughs.
Delays were minimal for most of Tuesday. But during the afternoon rush, delays of one to two hours started to mount in New York and Washington. Flight-tracking service FlightAware expected them to last through the evening. Los Angeles and Dallas saw delays of less than an hour.
Travel has not yet reached the levels the FAA warned about where some airports – like those in Atlanta, New York or Chicago – could see delays of more than three hours. Mother Nature has so far cooperated.
“Bad weather would make this much worse,” Parker said.