Monday, April 22, 2013

Airline Delays Follow Sequester-Tied Furloughs: WSJ

Updated April 22, 2013, 3:26 p.m. ET 

The Wall Street Journal

A day after the Federal Aviation Administration began furloughing some of its air-traffic controllers to save money because of the budget sequester, delays began to creep into the national airspace.

The FAA said on its website that Baltimore-Washington International Airport flight departures were being slowed down Monday due to traffic-management initiatives to "meter" the volume. The agency said the delays were running at an hour to an hour and 15 minutes by midafternoon.

Charlotte, N.C.'s airport was under a traffic-management program for arriving traffic due to "staffing" and "other" causes, leading to 17 minute delays.

Runway and taxiway maintenance at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on Monday was causing departing flight delays to run at two hours and 45 minutes, the FAA said. At New York's LaGuardia Airport, windy conditions were slowing arrivals by about the same length of time, while departures were running an hour and 43 minutes behind, the agency reported. Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, also affected by wind, was seeing departure delays of an hour and 23 minutes, the agency said.

The New York-area delays can't be directly linked to having 10% fewer controllers on duty. But the FAA was unambiguous about the reason for arrival slowdowns Sunday night at JFK and LaGuardia. Both of these traffic-management initiatives were due in part to "staffing," the agency said on its airport status information website Sunday.

Rich Frostig, a public relations consultant, was trying to get home to Connecticut Sunday night with his wife after a weekend in Chicago. He said because the couple was flying from Chicago's Midway Airport, they didn't anticipate any problems. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport is one of 13 major airports where the FAA has warned that delays of up to 6,700 flights a day can be expected. But Midway isn't on that list.

Mr. Frostig said the Southwest Airlines  flight was slated to depart at 5:15 p.m. CT on Sunday night. But it didn't get under way until 6:50 p.m. The pilot explained to passengers that "the sequester cuts have caused air-traffic controller furloughs," Mr. Frostig said. The pilot went on to say that the sequester will bring delays, "and there is nothing we can do to avoid them." The plane landed at LaGuardia after 9:30 p.m. ET.

If such delays continue, "I think this is going to really affect traveling," Mr. Frostig said.

The Global Business Travel Association, a trade group for the business-travel industry, wrote to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on Friday, expressing "significant concerns" about the potential delay to business travelers. "We are very much alarmed by the list of airports and the expected delays," said the association's executive director, Michael McCormick.

United Continental Holdings Inc. posted a notice on its website Monday offering travelers booked to fly to, from or through Los Angeles International Airport on Monday and Tuesday same-day flight changes within 24 hours of their original departure times without change fees. The carrier said the waiver was due to "FAA furloughs."

Alaska Air Group Inc.'s Alaska Airlines ran into an FAA ground-stop program late Sunday at Los Angeles International Airport. The airline said it was due to worsening weather conditions and insufficient controller staffing. The delays affected six Alaska flights and one of its Horizon commuter flights, which was canceled. One Alaska flight from Seattle and another from Portland, Ore., landed instead in Ontario, Calif., about 54 miles east of LAX. Alaska said in an internal email that it arranged buses to drive the passengers to LAX, a step it had laid out publicly on Saturday in its contingency plans. The other four LAX arrivals were late, the airline said.

Most other airlines haven't released many details of how they plan to cope with delays and cancellations, or what they will do to help their passengers.

John Thomas, head of the global aviation practice for consultants L.E.K Consulting, said Monday there is little airlines can actually do to keep their schedules from unraveling in the face of delays that will affect about a third of the nation's daily commercial passenger flights. If an airline tries to consolidate passengers from several small planes onto one flight using a larger jetliner, that airline would open up landing slots that its rivals might use by not trimming their own schedules. Moreover, he said, "given the complexity of the system, it's hard to change schedules." Airlines can increase the amount of scheduled time for a flight to build a buffer against delays, Mr. Thomas said. "But that costs money as it reduces the number of flights you can schedule for an aircraft."

Airlines for America, the trade group representing the major U.S. airlines, said it will continue to press its legal challenge of the FAA's controller furloughs even though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last Friday denied its request for an emergency motion, a spokeswoman for the trade group said. The court merely said the petition "has not satisfied the stringent requirement for a stay pending court review," according to a court document.

A number of airline unions and aviation trade associations signed a letter sent to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Friday. The letter asked the administration to give the FAA funding flexibility to avoid the controller furloughs. The letter was initiated by the National Air-Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents the nation's 15,000 civilian controllers who are now being hit by the furloughs.

The FAA, in a statement Sunday, said it will work with the airlines and use a comprehensive set of air-traffic management tools to minimize the delay impacts of lower staffing as it moves into the busy summer travel season.

At the daily press briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about the FAA furloughs brought about by the sequester. He said they couldn't be avoided because most of the FAA budget pays for personnel.

Sunday, the first day on which controllers were required to take one day off without pay for every 10 work days, relatively good weather helped the industry get 81% of the 22,874 flights to their destinations on time, according to, an airline-schedule tracking website. But traffic is heavier on weekdays, and inclement weather could create havoc when layered onto the reduced controller work force, experts said.


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