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Cancelled flights may become more frequent should the sequester occur on Friday.

Spending cuts creating risks for travelers?

by Tanya Basu
Feb 27, 2013

When the dreaded budget sequester takes place Friday, count on more airline delays, grumpier travelers and longer lines at airports.

That’s because part of the sequester plan proposes severe cuts to the nation’s aviation system. Many people involved in air travel– from Transportation Security Agency screeners to air traffic controllers – will be furloughed.

“This would adversely affect the traveling public and the economy,” warns Mike Claffey, communication manager with the Illinois Department of Transportation.

In a letter sent to aviation agencies Feb. 22, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood highlighted the effect of sequestration on the budget. “The Federal Aviation Administration is making plans to reduce its expenditures by approximately $600 million for the remainder of [fiscal year] 2013.”

The FAA is considering furloughing nearly 47,000 employees and removing midnight shifts at 60 traffic control towers. The agency also is planning to close more than 100 air traffic control towers at smaller airports nationwide. It also is looking at reducing the amount of preventive maintenance it requires on equipment.

Many of the cuts will fall on air traffic controllers, who have long complained about understaffing. Jobs will not necessarily be cut, according to Sarah Dunn, spokeswoman with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

“FAA officials have told us that furloughs are necessary,” said Dunn. “Furloughs will last approximately 11 to 22 days.”

Even if the sequester occurs Friday, furloughs won’t be immediate. By law, the FAA must inform the controllers’ union of the date when furloughs will start. That means furloughs probably won’t go into effect until mid-April, according to Dunn.

Currently, there are 14,752 air traffic controllers nationwide. Of those, 2,000 are in training and 3,100 are near retirement.

Dunn acknowledged that there may be a shortage of air traffic controllers should retirement become a more attractive option.

“Significant effects may occur in New York, Miami, Dallas, and Houston,” Dunn said. She declined to comment on the potential impact on Chicago.

Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport currently operates at a rate of 114 aircraft per hour, according to a report by the controllers’ union.

The sequestration will cut that by about one-third: In good weather, that would mean about 72 aircraft per hour could take off or land.

The North Tower would probably shut down, restricting all arrivals to two runways. Other flights could end up being rerouted to Midway Airport and other smaller airports.

Officials are still hoping some deal is struck.

“We have talked to the FAA since December,” said Dunn. “There has been a very open stream of communication with the FAA. We’ve been trying to educate Congress and the pubic to explain how the sequester will affect the public and economy.

IDOT spokesman Claffey also is optimistic: “[We] are hoping there will be some sort of budget deal that will avert these very severe impacts.”

Karen Pride, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation, which oversees both O’Hare and Midway, also has her fingers crossed. “The city is hopeful that an agreement will be reached by March 1, 2013 to postpone or eliminate sequestration.”