Flight delays soar as FAA cuts hours for air controllers

East Coast sees major disruptions; ripples also felt at Tucson airport
2013-04-23T00:00:00Z Flight delays soar as FAA cuts hours for air controllersStaff And Wire Reports Staff And Wire Reports Arizona Daily Star

Flight delays piled up all across the country Monday as thousands of air traffic controllers were forced to take an unpaid day off because of federal budget cuts, providing the most visible impact yet of Congress and the White House's failure to agree on a long-term deficit-reduction plan.

The Federal Aviation Administration kept planes on the ground because there weren't enough controllers to monitor busy air corridors. Cascading delays at some of the nation's busiest airports held up many flights into New York, Baltimore and Washington by more than two hours.

At Tucson International Airport, there were a few flight delays Monday between Phoenix and Tucson, from Denver to Tucson, and from San Francisco to Tucson, according to the airport's flight website.

"I can't even say if the delays were because of employee furloughs," said Viki Matthews, a Tucson International Airport spokeswoman. "All was calm and normal. It will be hard to determine what will happen the rest of the week."

She advised travelers to check the airport's website - www.flytucsonairport.com - to see if flights will be delayed or are on time before they head to the airport.

The FAA also advised travelers to see www.fly.faa.gov to get current delay information for their local airport.

"Tucson is not among the airports where we expect to see serious delays on a daily basis," Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman, wrote in an email.

"However, air traffic controllers at all of our facilities will be subject to furloughs. Depending on the time of day, the weather and traffic conditions at other airports, and staffing at FAA facilities that handle aircraft arriving at and departing from airports, it's possible that delays still could affect flight schedules at Tucson," Gregor wrote.

He said Tucson International Airport's tower had 16 controllers as of March, and one controller will be on furlough every day.

On Sunday night, Deborah Seymour was one of the first fliers to face the headaches. She was supposed to fly from Los Angles to Tucson. First her 9:55 p.m. flight was delayed for four hours. Then at 2 a.m., Southwest Airlines canceled it.

"It's pretty discouraging that Congress can't get it together, and now it's reached the point that we can't get on an airplane and fly," Seymour said.

In other parts of the nation Monday, the delays were so bad that passengers on several Washington-New York shuttle flights could have reached their destination faster by taking the train.

Nearly a third of flights at New York's LaGuardia Airport scheduled to take off before 3 p.m. were delayed 15 minutes or more, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. Last Monday, just 6 percent of LaGuardia's flights were delayed.

The situation was similar at Washington's Reagan National Airport, in Newark, N.J., and in Philadelphia with roughly 20 percent of flights delayed.

Monday is typically one of the busiest days at airports with many high-paying business travelers departing for a week on the road. The FAA's controller cuts - a 10 percent reduction of its staff - went into effect Sunday. The full force was not felt until Monday morning.

One thing working in fliers' favor Monday was relatively good weather at most of the country's major airports. A few wind gusts in New York, snow in Denver and thunderstorms in Miami added to some delays, but generally there were clear skies and no major storms.

However, the shortage of controllers could persist for months, raising the risk of a turbulent summer travel season. And it could exacerbate weather problems, especially spring and summer thunderstorms.

There's no way for passengers to tell in advance which airport or flights will experience delays.

FAA officials have said they have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 agency employees - including nearly 15,000 controllers - because the agency's budget is dominated by salaries. Each employee will lose one day of work every other week. The FAA has said that planes will have to take off and land less frequently, so as not to overload the remaining controllers on duty.

Critics have said the FAA could reduce its budget in other spots that wouldn't delay travelers.

Some travel groups have warned that the disruptions could hurt the economy as business travelers decide to stay home.

Associated Press reporter Scott Mayerowitz and Arizona Daily Star reporter Carmen Duarte contributed to this report. Contact Duarte at cduarte@azstarnet.com or 573-4104.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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