Air traffic controller furloughs delayed flights from O'Hare and Midway International Airports to Los Angeles Monday, and the worst is yet to come, experts say.
"We fully expect to see delays mount based on, No. 1, the way we've selected our furlough days, and No. 2, the increase in capacity by the airlines that will continue as they add more flights for the summer," said Dan Carrico, an air traffic controller at the O'Hare tower.
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"We're in unique and uncertain times. We've never had furloughs for air traffic controllers before," added Carrico, an official with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
As of late Monday afternoon, a lack of controllers had delayed some flights from Chicago to Los Angeles by nearly two hours and to Charlotte, N.C., by 23 minutes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Flights to New York also were stalled between two and three hours because of weather and maintenance issues.
Nationwide on Sunday 400 flights experienced delays, mostly at New York and Los Angeles airports, attributable to furloughs resulting from mandatory budget cuts. About 15,000 air traffic controllers will lose one day of work every two weeks.
The FAA has warned fliers to expect long waits because with fewer controllers working, airplanes will be spaced farther apart for safety reasons.
Monitoring the region's airspace is an elaborately choreographed task, air traffic association representatives said. Delays can be triggered by factors like how many employees are off on a given day, the weather, and what days are busiest -- for example, Thursday is a heavy day at O'Hare.
"It's not simple math," air traffic controller Bryan Zilonis said. "Say there's a storm in the Midwest and aircraft that normally would be in an east-to-west sector goes to a north-to-south sector. That creates a busier sector where you normally wouldn't expect to be busy," he explained.
Air traffic controllers are trained in and knowledgeable about specific geographic sectors and can't "mix and match." So if more flights are shuffled to an understaffed sector, "there's only one way to handle it. What you get are ground stops where aircraft aren't allowed to go into the system," said Zilonis, who works at the Chicago Center operations facility in Aurora and is a National Air Traffic Controllers Association official.
Sitting at O'Hare midmorning Monday, Willo Wortham said his trip was a disaster but he wasn't blaming furloughed air traffic controllers.
"The flight was OK. The rental car's another story," Wortham said. Wortham, of Houston, ended up missing the funeral of an old friend because of transit mix-ups and car rental issues.
Other travelers said they were aware of the furloughs but had gotten off unscathed.
"I heard about it, but everything was OK," said Chris Brown of Orlando, in town for a business trip.
"I was worried about it, but I had no problems," said Zed Tudor of Cincinnati.
O'Hare's situation will likely worsen because southerly winds are preventing arrivals on O'Hare's northernmost runway for the time being, which reduces the overall number of operations controllers are handling, Zilonis and Carrico noted..
Meanwhile, smaller airports may fare better than their larger counterparts, several officials said.
"Right now, we're not expecting any significant disruptions," DuPage Airport Executive Director David Bird said.
"I don't think it's going to be an issue here," Chicago Executive Airport Assistant Manager Jamie Abbott said.
Elsewhere, one out of every five flights at New York's LaGuardia International scheduled to take off before noon Monday was delayed 15 minutes or more, according to the flight tracking service FlightAware. Last Monday morning, just 2 percent of LaGuardia's flights were delayed. The situation was similar at Washington's Reagan National Airport in Newark, N.J., and in Philadelphia.
Congressional gridlock over the so-called sequester led to the furloughs of controllers and thousands of other federal employees.
The country's airlines and some lawmakers have suggested the White House is causing misery for fliers to put pressure on Republicans in Congress to rescind the cuts. They say the FAA is ignoring other ways to cut its $16 billion budget. Two airline trade associations and the nation's largest pilots union filed a lawsuit Friday asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to halt the furloughs. No hearing date has been set.
"We encourage the Obama administration and Congress to act on this," Zilonis said, adding that cutbacks in Transportation Security Administration staff will add to the misery with longer lines at security checkpoints.
Commercial pilot Dennis Tajer of Arlington Heights called the furloughs unprecedented.
"Air traffic controllers should not be subject to these types of arbitrary cuts as the country so heavily depends on the efficient flow of aircraft for important business and personal appointments," said Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association that represents American Airlines pilots.
Some groups are warning that the slowdown could hurt the economy.
"Our nation's economy and businesses will pay a very steep price that significantly outstrips savings produced by furloughs," the Global Business Travel Association warned the FAA in a letter Friday. "If these disruptions unfold as predicted, business travelers will stay home, severely impacting not only the travel industry but the economy overall."
• Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.