Air traffic controllers furloughed nationwide as Schumer warns of snarls

An air traffic controller looks out from the

An air traffic controller looks out from the control tower at Kennedy Airport. (Jan. 26, 2012) (Credit: Craig Ruttle)

Air travelers can expect to spend more time waiting at airport gates and lounges in the Hudson Valley and across the country after the Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday began rolling out furloughs for about 15,000 air traffic controllers nationwide.

But Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) Sunday called on Congress to find revenue elsewhere and reverse the cuts in the air traffic control system.

"Simply put, we cannot allow these furloughs to go through because if they go through, it will make flying on a normal day seem like you're flying in blizzard weather," he said at a news conference in Queens.


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The FAA announced that its air traffic control measures likely would delay the arrival of about 6,700 flights a day nationwide. United Airlines in a statement said that one in three fliers on commercial airlines could be hit with "significant" holdups.

Officials at Westchester County Airport, Stewart International Airport near Newburgh and the New York City area's major metropolitan airports, however, reported that traffic Sunday was relatively light and that takeoffs and landings were moving normally apart from some delays stemming from stormy weather in Florida.

"Sunday is a little bit of a lighter travel day," said Chris Valens, spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Stewart, Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports. "As of now, we're not seeing delays. We may see more tomorrow."

Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, warned that delays in the system could "snowball," creating an air travel mess the equivalent of having a "Hurricane Sandy in the North and Hurricane Katrina in the South."

In a statement, United Airlines, which operates out of Westchester County Airport, said it was "developing contingency plans to operate under this reduced air traffic control capacity, in order to minimize the impact of sequestration-related delays on our customers."

A spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an industry group that represents major airlines, said late Sunday afternoon that traffic was running smoothly.

The furloughs are a byproduct of the sequester, across-the-board federal budget cuts that took effect March 1 and were put in place as an incentive for Republicans and Democrats to arrive at a deal to reduce the deficit.

"New York State under sequester is supposed to lose about 60 to 80 air traffic controllers each day," Schumer said outside the Marie Air Terminal at LaGuardia.

Rather than furlough the air traffic controllers, Schumer said, the government should remove the tax breaks for oil companies and raise revenue elsewhere.

"Make some sensible cuts in areas where there's much more waste than here," he said.

The pilots union and two airline trade groups jointly filed a lawsuit last week in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington seeking to block the furloughs, but no hearing was expected until this week, said Nick Calio, chief of Airlines for America, which represents the major carriers.

"The impact of these cuts on our industry cannot be overstated," said Faye Black, vice president of the Regional Airline Association, which joined the suit. "We think there is not one airport in the nation that will be immune to this."

On Thursday, FAA officials estimated that the cutbacks would cause delays of up to 50 minutes and an average of 12 minutes at Kennedy, up to 80 minutes and an average of 30 at LaGuardia and up to 210 minutes and an average of 11 minutes at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International.

Los Angeles International and Chicago's O'Hare also could face major delays, as well as airports in Miami; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; San Diego; Philadelphia; and San Francisco.

The FAA did not release estimates for potential delays at Stewart International Airport or Westchester County Airport. It was not clear Sunday how many traffic controllers at those airports would be furloughed.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, in testimony last week before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said the agency had no alternatives to the cutbacks.

"We are exercising all options to reduce costs -- a hiring freeze, cutting contracts, cutting travel and other items not related to day-to-day operations," he said.

"To reach the figure we need to cut from our payroll -- which is our largest operating cost -- we have to furlough 47,000 of our employees for up to 11 days between now and September," Huerta said.

With The Associated Press

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