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April 23, 2013

US Budget Impasse Causes Flight Delays

by Chris Simkins

Flight delays are affecting air travel at U.S. airports as federal aviation officials reduce hours for about 15,000 air traffic controllers. The move is part of the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester that is affecting nearly every federal government agency.

At some of America's busiest airports, flight delays and cancelations are mounting. Travelers are frustrated.

Flight delays are becoming more common since government budget cuts reduced staffing at airport control towers. Lawmakers from both political parties are blaming each other for the cuts.

Michael Huerta heads the Federal Aviation Administration. He told a congressional committee that the agency had  to cut staff in airport towers to achieve $220 million in savings.

"In order to comply with the sequester [forced budget cuts] law, we have to take these actions," said Huerta.

With fewer people directing take-offs and landings, fewer planes are able to fly in and out of airports. Transportation officials says 6,700 flights a day could be delayed.

"It is like equating it to [highway] tollbooths. If you have 10 tollbooths and you only open eight, you are going to have delays," said Air Traffic Controller Victor Santore.

Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood said the situation is a calamity, but air travelers are safe.

"Safety will never be compromised. Safety is not involved in the decisions we have made," said Lahood.

It is not just flight operations at the nation's smaller airports. At some of the busiest airports, like at Baltimore Washington International for instance, landings of commercial and cargo aircraft are being affected.

Linda Green, who directs the Baltimore airport business partnership, says there already is an economic slowdown near the airport.

"You look at the fact this airport, for example, is surrounded by 35 hotels, all of whom rely on the traffic that comes through this airport," she said. "As things slow down it will have a ripple effect, ripple first through the airport and then the surrounding businesses around the airport."  

In Florida, which relies heavily on tourism, the impact on travel could cost the state $19 million a year.

"It is going to impact people's interest in coming to the state because of these delays. It is going to impact business in our state, and it is absolutely the wrong thing to do," said Florida Governor Rick Scott.

Analysts say passengers also could end up paying more to fly during the coming vacation season.

"Airlines may have to cut seats. That will drive up ticket prices because demand will still be high," said air travel analyst Rick Seaney.

With air travelers increasingly frustrated, some lawmakers are calling for legislation to get more air traffic controllers back on the job.