The US Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) planned furloughs of air traffic controllers has drawn the ire of Airlines for America (A4A), which filed a suit to stop the action in district court today.

The airline industry body and its partners the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Regional Airline Association (RAA) claims that the planned furloughs, which go into effect on 21 April, are "irresponsible and unnecessary" under the $637 million in budget cuts the agency is required to make under the sequester, says A4A president and chief executive Nicholas Calio during a press conference today.

"The FAA will be deliberately delaying one out of every four passengers that travels in this country," he says, adding that up to 6,700 flights per day could be delayed under the planned reductions in the air traffic controller workforce.

The motion was filed with the US Appellate Court for the District of Columbia Circuit. Calio says that while they do not plan to stop the furloughs before they start, they anticipate a reaction from the court within days and a hearing within a week.

"It will not be very long before the system comes to a grinding halt," says Lee Moak, president of ALPA International. "It would be like Hurricane Sandy in the north and Hurricane Katrina in the south at the same time. The air system is like a light switch, once [the furloughs] start it takes days and days to recover."

FAA administrator Michael Huerta outlined the cuts to a Senate committee on 16 April. He said during the hearing that the furloughs would represent about 10% of "available controller hours" at large airports and equal 11 furlough days for each of the agency's 47,000 employees through September.

"Large hub airports could expect delays of up to 90 minutes in peak travel periods," he said.

Delays could hit 80min at New York's LaGuardia airport between 06:00 and midnight due to the furloughs, says the FAA. They could be up to 50min at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International and 51min at Newark Liberty International, they add.

These waits would be in addition to the common delays that impact airports in the New York region.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates JFK, LaGuardia and Newark, says that they will closely monitor the situation and advises travellers to check with airlines.

"The FAA says it is reducing the number of air traffic controllers, and their own modelling indicates this will result in systemic delays for our customers, coworkers and the communities we serve," says United Airlines, which has hubs at eight airports around the country including Chicago O'Hare and Newark. "They had months to prepare for the impact of sequestration on the air traffic system, and waited until the 11th hour to let the airlines know of this arbitrary, unreasonable plan."

The Chicago-based carrier did not comment on whether it plans to adjust its schedules in response to the furloughs.

Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air says that it does not need to make any schedule adjustments to cope with the potential delays. "We are, at the moment, confident we can operate as normal," it says.

Southwest Airlines feels otherwise, comparing its preparations to those before a storm. "We are fully staffed and bracing for impact and ready to [help] our customers” reach their destinations on time, it says.

“The truth is, we really don’t know what the real impact will be. I don’t think anyone does at this point,” the Dallas-based airline adds.

Memphis-based cargo operator FedEx says that they will continue to work with the FAA to understand any future airport plans.

Calio says that the FAA insists that it lacks the authority to designate air traffic controllers as "essential personnel", which would allow them to avoid the furloughs. However, lawyers working for A4A and its partners determined that controllers could be deemed essential, he says.

Huerta said during the hearing that only the agency's airport improvement programme is exempted from the sequester law.

"We find ourselves left with no choice," says Calio. "We are taking legal action."

The FAA declines to comment on the pending litigation.

Additional reporting by Jon Hemmerdinger and Kristin Majcher

Note: Updated with airline and FAA comments

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news