Delays will occur at the largest U.S. airports, including Chicago’s O’Hare and Atlanta’s Hartsfield, because of furloughs to controllers and maintenance workers set to start April 21, Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta said.
The FAA must cut $637 million from its $16 billion budget by Sept. 30, Huerta told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee today. The cuts are required under the automatic government budget cuts known as sequestration.
The FAA has cut as much as it can from discretionary accounts for travel and training, making reductions in air-traffic control operations necessary, Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have told Congress.
“We have very few choices, we’re looking at a series of bad options,” Huerta said at a hearing on the agency’s budget.
The air-traffic furloughs will make delays and disruptions unavoidable at some busy airports such as Newark’s Liberty International, Ray Adams, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s local president at that airport’s tower, said in an interview. The association is the union representing about 15,000 FAA-employed controllers.
About 10 percent of controllers will be furloughed on average, according to Huerta. The impacts on some shifts will be greater than that, Adams said.
Newark, the most delayed airport in the U.S. according to Department of Transportation data, is chronically understaffed because it’s so difficult for new controllers to become certified there, Adams said.
There are times late at night when only two controllers staff the tower, Adams said. FAA rules prohibit having fewer than two people working late shifts, so additional cuts will have to come during busier day shifts, he said.
“We’re not going to move as many airplanes as we normally could if we had the bodies and positions that we need,” Adams said. “You’re going into the busiest season in the most complex airspace in the country with less controllers.”
The agency plans to close 149 towers staffed by contractors at small and midsized airports by June 15 and require most of its 47,000 employees to take as many as 11 unpaid days off.
Airlines for America and the Regional Airline Association, Washington-based trade groups representing airlines, have said in statements they do not expect the tower closings to disrupt their schedules.
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