WASHINGTON -- Flight delays as long as 90 minutes at major airports, including those in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, are expected if automatic U.S. spending cuts set to begin March 1 take effect, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday.
The Federal Aviation Administration would begin furloughing staff at air-traffic control facilities on April 1, LaHood said at a White House briefing. More than 230 towers at smaller and mid-size airports may be closed, according to a list posted on the FAA website.
"It's going to be very painful for the flying public," LaHood said at a White House briefing. "This is going to have an enormous impact."
The government won't compromise safety, he said, but airlines would have to reduce flight schedules.
Travelers will also likely face delays getting through airport security. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said the cuts would force the Transportation Security Administration to freeze hiring for all transportation security officer positions, eliminate overtime and furlough its 50,000 officers for up to seven days.
Next week's deadline to avoid the cuts marks another fiscal showdown between President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies versus congressional Republicans. Without a deal, $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, will take effect March 1.
Top Republicans on congressional transportation and aviation panels accused the administration of spreading unnecessary alarm.
"Before jumping to the conclusion that furloughs must be implemented, the administration and the agency need to sharpen their pencils and consider all the options," a statement from the lawmakers said.
LaHood was brought to the White House briefing room for his announcement. Asked about that, he said: "I would describe my presence here with one word: Republican. They're hoping that maybe I can influence some of the people in my own party."
He called his warning genuine. "What I'm trying to do," he said, "is wake up members of the Congress with the idea that they need to come to the table so we don't have to have this kind of calamity in air services in America."
LaHood said his staff was providing information on the agency's projections to an airline industry group. "Once airlines see the potential impact of these furloughs, we expect that they will change their schedules and cancel flights," LaHood said.
The department is starting talks today with air traffic controller unions about plans for closing or reducing the operating hours at some towers, he said.
"Safety is always the top priority of air traffic controllers, but the reality is this -- safety will be preserved at the expense of operations across the country," Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said in a statement.
Airlines for America, an industry group, said in a statement that the organization, the FAA and airline carriers would be meeting soon to plan for potential cutbacks.
"Air transportation is a key driver of our economy, and should not be used as a political football," the statement said.