Gridlock at some airports; furlough effect minimal at PHL

Posted: April 24, 2013

Gridlock hit commercial flights at some East Coast airports Monday, as 1,500 air traffic controllers were forced to take a mandatory furlough day due to federal budget cuts.

Flights into New York and Newark, N.J., were delayed an hour and 23 minutes in Newark; 2 hours and 43 minutes at John F. Kennedy airport; and one hour and 43 minutes at LaGuardia airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration website.

Philadelphia International Airport experienced delays of 15 minutes or less, which is considered normal, according to the FAA website.

"We're not showing any delays," Philadelphia airport spokeswoman Victoria Lupica said Monday afternoon. "We have adequate air traffic controller staffing. Our operations are not being affected - departures and arrivals."

However, there could be some trickle-down effects from other airports and areas where FAA locations are affected, Lupica added.

At 7 p.m., the FAA website said Philadelphia was experiencing gate-hold and taxi delays of 16 to 30 minutes "and increasing," due to wind.

Flights Monday were delayed in Baltimore and at Washington's Reagan National airport.

Todd Lehmacher, spokesman for US Airways in Philadelphia, said the carrier was "seeing an impact due to controller staffing issues."

Flights departing Reagan airport in Washington were delayed by 60 to 90 minutes into New York LaGuardia. They were primarily East Coast shuttle flights. Later in the day, US Airways had arrival delays in Charlotte, N.C., due to air traffic controller staffing.

"We are working closely with the FAA and our airline's air traffic desk to minimize delays and reduce the number of flight cancellations," Lehmacher said. "Customer inconvenience is of concern to us."

The FAA has said it had no other way to trim $637 million from the agency budget as required by the across-the-board spending cuts approved by Congress.

The FAA has 47,000 employees, each of whom is scheduled to take one furlough day every other week between now and Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.

Nationwide, 10 percent of FAA employees will be furloughed each day, including roughly 1,500 controllers, the agency said.

In a statement Monday, the FAA said, "Travelers can expect to see a wide range of delays that will change throughout the day depending on staffing and weather-related issues."

The statement noted "staffing challenges" at New York Terminal Radar Approach Control and at New York, Fort Worth, Jacksonville, and Los Angeles radar centers that handles high-altitude flights.

"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 LaGuardia Airport," the FAA said.

"We encourage all travelers to check their flight status and also to visit www.fly.faa.gov for the latest airport delay information," the agency said.

When the furloughs kicked in Sunday, there were about 400 delays in the nation's air system attributable to staffing reductions, the FAA said.

Airlines for America, a trade group for the airline industry, joined by the Air Line Pilots Association and the Regional Airline Association, filed a lawsuit Friday asking a federal court in Washington to halt the furloughs.

The groups said the FAA was "irresponsible" for cutting 10 percent of its staff, jeopardizing the safety and security of air travelers, and affecting up to 6,700 flights a day and one out of every three passengers.

Business traveler Brian Mandel, of Lafayette Hill, e-mailed Monday to suggest that Philadelphia's airport may have "underestimated the impact of the furlough."

Mandel said that he was on a Delta Air Lines flight Monday morning from Philadelphia to Detroit, which was delayed due to the late arrival of the incoming aircraft and that the wait time between takeoffs on the runway seemed longer than usual.

"I cannot tell you for certain that this was due to the furlough, but there was no other apparent reason," Mandel said.

The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, representing 11,000 FAA employees, warned that the disruptions could hurt the economy.

"The furloughs will result in reduced maintenance of aviation systems and equipment, which will increase the potential for outages, prolonged restoration of system or equipment failures, meaning more delays for air travelers nationwide," Mike Perrone, the group's national president, wrote members of Congress.

The furloughs include airline systems specialists and aviation safety inspectors.

Delta Air Lines said the furloughs of controllers would "adversely affect operations at many major airports."

In a letter to the FAA chief operating officer, Delta's general counsel Ben Hirst said both solicitors general in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations agreed that "the FAA has flexibility to transfer funds from nonsafety activities" to support the agency's "core mission of efficiently managing the nation's airspace."

"The FAA has discretion with respect to cuts" within its $7.4 billion budget, Hirst wrote.

"The FAA does not need to resort to furloughs to meet the requirements of sequestration. I hope the FAA will reconsider its position," Hirst said.

Some congressional Republicans have suggested the FAA could reduce spending on consultants, supplies, and travel, and trim a grant program for airport improvements.

Airlines for America, the trade group, said it was monitoring the situation, "and we urge customers to stay in close contact with their airlines, monitoring their websites for the latest flight status, and signing up for electronic updates on their mobile devices."


Contact Linda Loyd

at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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