WASHINGTON -- Air traffic controller furloughs scheduled to kick in on Sunday could result in flight delays of more than three hours in Atlanta, as well as significant delays in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York-area airports, federal officials said Thursday.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta said they have no choice but to cut controller staffing by 10 percent, which will reduce how many planes airports can handle. But a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade association for the airline industry, said the furloughs are unnecessary and airlines are considering suing the government.
Without the furloughs, FAA officials could find no way to cut $637 million from the agency's budget as required by automatic, across-the-board spending cuts approved by Congress, LaHood and Huerta said at a media briefing.
Calling the automatic spending cuts "a dumb idea," LaHood said his department, which includes the FAA, has done "everything possible" to find the money.
"If we had had our way, we probably wouldn't be sitting here," he said. "This is a fluid situation, but we want the traveling public to have the best information."
In the most extreme case, the furloughs could delay flights up to 210 minutes at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, depending upon the time of day and other factors. The FAA said, however, that the average delay will be far less, about 11 minutes.
Other airports for which officials provided delay estimates include Newark, with maximum delays of 51 minutes and average delays of about 20 minutes; John F. Kennedy in New York, with maximum delays of 50 minutes and average 12 minutes; LaGuardia in New York, with maximum delays of 80 minutes and average 30 minutes; Los Angeles International, with maximum delays of 67 minutes, and average 10 minutes, and Chicago's O'Hare, with maximum delays of 132 minutes, average 50 minutes.
Airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; San Diego, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, as well as Chicago's Midway Airport, are also expected to experience significant delays, the officials said, although they didn't provide estimates on how long those delays might be.
The estimates vary because each airport is unique, Huerta said. At O'Hare, for example, it's possible there won't be a full complement of controllers to staff the airport's two control towers, requiring one tower to be shut down. Without a second tower, one of the airport's runways will have to shut down, reducing takeoffs and landings, he said. Most airports only operate one control tower.
In Atlanta, it's also possible some of the airport's five runways may have to be closed for parts of the day, and planes arriving at the airport may have to circle longer or take longer routes in order to avoid overloading controllers, Huerta said. Atlanta is the world's busiest airport based on the number of passengers, many of them catching connecting flights.
Since late February, airlines have received extensive briefings on what to expect and have all the information the FAA possesses on how the furloughs will impact air traffic operations, LaHood said.
But Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the airline association, said the industry has legal opinions "affirming that the FAA has discretion to implement cuts without furloughing air traffic controllers." Unlike other agencies, "they have not acted to minimize potential impacts," she said.
"We find ourselves with little choice but to actively review all of our legal options to protect our passengers and shippers from being needlessly impacted," Medina said.
A key Republican lawmaker accused President Barack Obama and administration officials of deliberately trying to upset the public.
"They want to cause the most pain to the American people out there so they will put pressure on Congress to back away from sequestration (spending cuts)," Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania Thursday told a transportation gathering hosted by the National Journal news magazine. Shuster chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"I believe he (Obama) is instructing his agencies to do things that inflict the most pain on the most people. This should be laid right at the president's feet," Shuster said.
The FAA's 47,000 employees -- including nearly 15,000 controllers -- are scheduled for one furlough day every other week through Sept. 30. That will reduce the number of controller hours on duty and pay by 10 percent, Huerta said.
The employee furloughs will save an estimated $200 million, and the tower closings will save $25 million, he said.
But air travelers may get a break on the ground. A senior Transportation Security Administration official said Thursday he doesn't expect furloughs for his agency, which staffs airport security across the nation. And, he said, longer wait times at checkpoints have not yet materialized as a result of so-called sequestration, as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned last month.
Congress included additional money for security officers in a budget bill for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year, and long wait times have been averted for now, TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinski told a congressional panel. Obama signed the budget bill last month.
Halinski cautioned that even with the extra funding, travelers may see lines and wait times increase during busy travel periods.