FAA furloughs staff: Sequest-Air has landed, and flights are late

The FAA has warned for some time that the impact of the 'sequester' on its staffing would be felt by air travelers. On Sunday, flight delays began stacking up above New York's, and other, airports.

By , Staff writer

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    A Southwest airlines arrives to land at the San Diego International Airport in San Diego, Calif., Monday. The US Federal Aviation Administration warned on Monday that air travelers should expect 'wide-ranging delays' because of staffing cuts at air-traffic control facilities, and the agency is using traffic management plans at airports around the country to address the problem.
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Planes arriving in the airspace above New York area airports Sunday night began to stack up in holding patterns, with delays ultimately stretching out to about 80 minutes. In Los Angeles delays on incoming flights were nearly as long.

On Monday, delays also began to mount, reaching nearly three hours at JFK Airport and more than an hour and a half at LaGuardia.

Travelers were not amused.

Recommended: Briefing After the 'sequester,' now what?

“Way to go, US transportation. You managed to delay my flight 3 times before canceling it and sending me to Orlando instead,” tweeted Paul Murty. “Appreciate it.”

Another flyer, Jake Bley tweeted, “Flight delay and I'm a grumpy cat.”

Welcome to the new world of flying during the mandatory, cross-the-board federal budget cuts known as the "sequester."

Although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has warned for some time that there would be delays, they have now actually started. The result: 400 delays on Sunday alone, according to the FAA.

The delays are a broadly felt nuisance. They add expenses to the airlines in the form of additional fuel costs; flyers are at risk of missing connections; and even some companies that provide overnight shipping might not be able to deliver packages on time.

“It is hard to dispute what this is being attributed to,” says Mark Duell, vice president for operations at FlightAware.com, a flight tracking service based in Houston. “What the FAA is posting internally and externally is that the delays are related to staffing.”

For those taking to the airways, the manpower-caused delays may mean extra time at the gate. It may also mean incoming flights spend more time circling until the control tower can vector the planes down. Or, beleaguered radar operators may expand the distance between planes, again adding to the time spent in the air.

“As constructed, the plan has the potential to cause maximum destruction for the travelling public and the shipping public,” Nicholas Calio, president of Airlines for America, said at a press conference on Friday to announce a lawsuit to try to prevent the FAA personnel cutbacks. The pilots’ union is also part of the lawsuit.

They are not the only ones complaining. On Sunday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to halt the furlough of air traffic controllers. He said the furloughs will cause long delays at Florida’s airports, and the state would be disproportionately affected because it has four hub airports in Orlando, Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami.

On Monday, Governor Scott’s fears were coming true.

“There is a line north of the border of Florida, and if a flight passes through the line it will have a delay of fifty minutes until 6 p.m.,” says Mr. Duell. “Most of the planes are being held at the originating airport and then they are metering them down there.”

The airlines are also warning customers on their web sites that delays might be possible. On Monday, JetBlue cautioned travelers to plan for possible flight delays and longer than usual wait times through airport security checkpoints.

Over the weekend, Delta, on its web site, said the FAA had advised them that furlough-driven delays were most likely to occur in 10 airports. They were the three New York area airports, Philadelphia, Ft. Lauderdale, the two Chicago airports, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

On Monday, the FAA added to that list noting that it was experiencing what it termed “staffing challenges” at Fort Worth Center and Jacksonville Center as well as New York 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,” said the FAA in a statement to the Monitor.

The FAA encouraged travelers to check their flight status and also to go to its own website to check on airport delay information.

The FAA or someone may be hearing about it sooner rather than later. On Monday, one tweet from Maureen Johnson, an author of young adult fiction, said she had been told, “Your flight is late because of the government. We are mad and have started a petition.”

Emily Powers in Boston contributed to this story.

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