ATC furlough delays hit US east coast

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Furloughs of air traffic controllers caused delays at a handful of major airports on the US east coast today, but did not appear to affect flights at other large airports across the country.

US Airways tells Flightglobal that the furloughs, put in place by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on 21 April, caused its shuttle flights from Washington National airport to New York LaGuardia airport to be delayed 60 to 90 minutes this morning.

The airline also says flights at its Charlotte hub were delayed today because of the furloughs, which the FAA implemented in response to congressionally-imposed budget cuts.

The FAA's website warns that many airports could be affected.

"As a result of employee furloughs due to sequestration, the FAA is implementing traffic management initiatives at airports and enroute facilities around the country," the FAA says. "Travellers can expect a wide range of delays that may change depending on staffing and weather-related issues. Controllers may space planes further apart to manage traffic with current staff."

As of this afternoon, however, the FAA reports delays at only a few major airports on the east coast, including the US Airways hub of Charlotte, where there was a ground delay programme as a result of staffing problems.

Average delays at Charlotte were 17 minutes.

There were also delays at New York's three major airports, but it is unclear to what degree furloughs were responsible. LaGuardia airport had a ground delay programme in effect and departing aircraft were delayed up to 44 minutes due to volume, the FAA says.

There were also traffic management programs at John F. Kennedy International airport and Newark Liberty International airport, where arrival delays were roughly 30 minutes this afternoon.

Delays of more than one hour were also reported at Baltimore Washington International airport in Maryland, but those delays subsided later in the day.

The FAA's website shows no problems this afternoon at other airports, including those that the FAA said would be most impacted by the furloughs.

Some airlines and trade associations also report smooth operations today.

"We are not seeing a significant impact at this point," trade group Airlines for America (A4A) tells Flightglobal today. "We are continuing to monitor and [we] urge passengers to check with their airlines."

"We have not seen a significant impact this far," Southwest Airlines tells Flightglobal.

JetBlue Airways says only that "delays due to FAA furloughs are possible", while Hawaiian Airlines did not observe any impact on its flights.

Other airlines did not immediately comment, but United Airlines said in an employee newsletter last week that furloughs could affect its flights in Los Angeles, Newark and Chicago.

Alaska Airlines also issued a statement last week warning of delays and urging customers to arrive at the airport early.

The FAA told airlines last week that required budget cuts left it no choice but to furlough all its 47,000 employees, with each employee losing a day of work every two weeks. The agency must cut $637 million from its budget.

The FAA said the furloughs could cause hours-long delays to some 6,700 flights operating to and from some of the nation's busiest airports.

It said daily ground-delay programs could be required at eight "core" airports: Chicago-O'Hare, Fort Lauderdale, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Diego, Los Angeles and the three major New York airports of LaGuardia, Newark and John F. Kennedy.

In addition, the FAA said traffic management efforts could be needed at Philadelphia, Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago-Midway and San Francisco.

In response, A4A, in concert with the Air Line Pilots Association International and the Regional Airline Association, filed a suit in federal court on 19 April requesting an emergency stay to block the furloughs.

They also requested that the court review the FAA's decision, insisting that the FAA could cut other areas of the budget. The suit was filed in the United States District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The court denied the emergency motion on 19 April, but A4A says the legal challenge continues.

"The stay was an effort to halt the action immediately. We will continue to pursue options through the court and legislative process," A4A tells Flightglobal.

The American Association of Airport Executives, based in Alexandria, Virginia, issued a statement today criticising the FAA.

"If the agency is truly committed to its stated goal of managing the sequestration in a fashion that minimises the impact on the largest number of travellers, furloughing controllers at the busiest airports would have been an act of last resort, not part of an opening volley," it says.

Blame has also been hurled at the US Congress.

Rick Larson, a Democratic US representative from the state of Washington, says "the simple truth is that it is Congress' job to fix this".

"Flight delays are just the latest example of how the sequester is damaging the economy and hurting families across the country. Congress needs to replace the entire sequester with a smart and balanced deficit reduction plan," Larson says in a statement today.