Air travelers will keep a close eye on airport departure boards today, hoping to get a sense of whether the threat of crushing delays from sequester-related budget cuts are real or are simply political bluster.
Air traffic controllers became subject to furloughs resulting from the spending cuts on Sunday, though delays generally came late in the day and were generally minor and sporadic, according to most accounts. Today's busier weekday schedule is seen as a better barometer as to what impact the furloughs will have on air travel.
Already, most big airlines have warned passengers to brace for delays and to check ahead on the status of their flights before departing for the airport.
One big carrier - Alaska Airlines - has gone so far as to waive rebooking fees at one of its busier airports, citing the threat of "FAA Furloughs" as the cause. The airline says customers ticketed through Los Angeles International - one of the airports predicted to see a pronounced effect of any furlough-related delays - can rebook without penalty if they were ticketed to fly through there between Sunday and Tuesday.
"In response to sequestration budget cuts, Alaska Airlines is recommending that customers check the status of their flight before leaving for the airport and allow additional time to check in when traveling to or from Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Newark, San Diego and San Francisco," Alaska Airlines said in a statement issued on Saturday. "The Federal Aviation Administration plans to furlough air traffic controllers starting Sunday, which the agency predicts could cause extensive ground delays ranging from 50 minutes to two hours and a reduction in flight arrivals of 30% to 40% at certain airports."
As for Sunday, The Associated Press writes most commercial airline flights "moved smoothly throughout most of the country ... , though some delays appeared in the late evening in and around New York on Sunday."
In Los Angeles, AP says some fliers at LAX "were met with long delays on the first day of staffing cuts for air traffic controllers," with some flight delays "averaging more than three hours for flights arriving LAX."
Airport spokesman Marshall Lowe told AP that about 70 flights had delays of about an hour or more at LAX on Sunday, but he could not say the role staffing played.
Reuters writes LaGuardia and JFK airports "reported delays of more than an hour, and Philadelphia international airport also reported delays due to furloughs, the FAA said." However, those airports are among the nation's most delay-prone, often experiencing hour-long delays even in fair conditions.
Elsewhere, Reuters writes that LAX "reported nearly a two-hour delay at 10 pm ET, and Newark Liberty International reported 28-minute delays, though the FAA could not confirm whether those were related to the staff cuts. Delays of up to 58 minutes in San Francisco and 29 minutes in Orlando, Florida, were due to construction and weather, the FAA said."
Federal transportation officials reiterated late last week their warnings about hours-long delays that could show up this week during the busiest times at the country's busiest airports because federal spending cuts forced furloughs for air-traffic controllers.
They said the worst delays, which they predicted would ebb and flow with daily traffic, are expected at 13 hubs: JFK, LaGuardia and Newark in the New York area; Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco in California; O'Hare and Midway in Chicago; Miami and Fort Lauderdale in Florida; Atlanta; Philadelphia and Charlotte.
To prevent planes from stacking up during busy times at those hubs, the Federal Aviation Administration will hold planes at their originating airports or order them to take circuitous routes, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said last week.
The worst delays could be 210 minutes for flights headed to Atlanta, 132 minutes for flights to O'Hare and 80 minutes to LaGuardia, Huerta said. A whole runway could be taken out of action at Atlanta or O'Hare for lack of staffing, he said.
The worst delays for flights to Los Angeles are projected at 67 minutes and about 50 minutes for flights to JFK and Newark, he said.
"We are not going to sacrifice safety," said Huerta, who said weather could cause even worse delays. "There are about a dozen airports that will see heavy to moderate delays, which could be similar to what we would experience during a significant summer thunderstorm."
By Ben Mutzabaugh