Delta Air Lines cancelled 90 flights due to the furlough of US air traffic controllers on 22 April, all were Delta Connection flights to smaller destinations.
The move allowed Atlanta-based Delta to make space for its mainline flights in the northeast, which is already some of the most congested air space in the USA, as the air traffic controllers increased spacing between aircraft to make up for the reductions in staff.
"We've been able to minimise the effect on our mainline operations," says Richard Anderson, chief executive of Delta, during an earnings call on 23 April. "And if you think about how the air traffic control system works, the first flights that end up being thinned or delayed or cancelled are going to be 50-seaters, 37-seaters and 44-seaters."
The cancellations did not eliminate delays. Stephen Gorman, chief operating officer at Delta, says that even with them the airline's on-time rate was between 77% and 78% on 22 April compared to a typical on-time rate of between 85% and 86%, during the call. He adds that Delta achieved a 100% mainline completion factor the same day.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says that more than 1,200 flights were delayed due to the furloughs on 22 April, including ones at Charlotte, Dallas-Fort Worth, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It says that it must implement the furloughs in order to achieve $637 million in sequester-related budget cuts that it must make through the end of September.
"To minimise the impact to as few customers as possible, what that means of course is, if you cut back flights, you cut back smaller airports," says Doug Parker, chairman and chief executive of US Airways, during a separate earnings call on 23 April. "Yes, smaller communities will feel more of an effect of this."
Parker and his executive team did not disclose any cancellations that were made due to the furloughs but said that only 64% of its flights to its Charlotte hub arrived on-time due to a combination of jury duty and sick calls among the air traffic controllers responsible for the North Carolina airport.
"[You] can't predict this stuff," says Robert Isom, chief operating officer at US Airways, on furlough-related operational impacts. "We don't know when people are going to be out [and] there isn't a lot of preplanning."
United Airlines says that it cancelled 86 flights and delayed 532 more due to the furloughs on 21 and 22 April, in an employee newsletter on 23 April. It says that at Los Angeles International and Newark Liberty International airports it cancelled United Express flights in order to reduce delays.
Troy Bell, director of marketing and air service development at Richmond International airport in Virginia, says that only 2% of its scheduled flights were cancelled and about 90% on-time as of 16:00 on 23 April. He anticipates that smaller airports, for example Lynchburg or Shenandoah Valley, will feel the brunt of cancellations by mainline carriers.
Airline revenues are also being hit by the federal budget cuts. The across the board cuts, which went into effect on 1 March, have resulted in US government agencies and affiliated companies to significantly reduce travel.
Government-related revenue at US Airways was down 37% in March compared to a year earlier, says Scott Kirby, president of the airline, during the earnings call. However, he notes that this cannot all be attributed to the sequester, adding that the early Easter holiday likely had an impact.
US Airways operates a large focus city at Ronald Reagan Washington National airport, which is the closest to the US capital.
Delta saw bookings from defence industry corporate clients fall by 15% to 20% in March, says Ed Bastian, president of the airline. He says that this represents about 3% of its corporate revenues.
Both airlines attribute a fall in demand in March to the sequester. Delta saw passenger revenue per available seat mile (PRASM) growth fall to 2% during the month from 5% in February, and US Airways saw flat year-on-year growth in March compared to a 1% increase a month earlier.
Cancellations and delays will also cost airlines. US Airways anticipates that it will incur $250 million in additional expenses due to air traffic controller furlough-related delays, says Kirby. He adds that it does not expect them to impact customer bookings.
The FAA has received widespread criticism for the furloughs. Airlines for America (A4A), the Regional Airlines Association (RAA) and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) filed a motion to block them with the district court on 19 April and almost every carrier has spoken out against them.
"It's not the right thing for the flying public, it's not the right thing for our country," says Parker.
A regional sales executive travelling from Denver to Oklahoma City on United on 23 April says that it's ridiculous that the federal government would take an action that could have so much impact on the economy. He adds that it is frequent business travellers like himself who will bear the brunt of the furloughs.
The furloughs represent about 10% of "available controller hours" at large airports, totalling 11 furlough days for each of the administration's 47,000 employees, FAA administrator Michael Huerta told the US Senate on 16 April.