by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
Air travelers reported long delays at airports on Monday as the first worker furloughs related to the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester began.
Airlines and organizations representing pilots put the blame for the delays squarely on the furloughs, while Republicans said the Federal Aviation Administration was intentionally passing the pain onto passengers to make a political statement about the sequester.
“No one likes sequestration, but FAA is ignoring authority it has and making it as painful as possible for air travelers #obamaflightdelays,” Brendan Buck, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), tweeted on Monday morning.
The White House and Democrats defended the FAA, arguing furloughs were unavoidable at the agency given the forced spending cuts.
“Millions of Americans who fly will get their first taste of the pain of sequestration,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday on the Senate floor. “Whether traveling from Maine or Montana, they should expect a long delay for a flight.
Reid said the FAA is expecting “6,700 delayed flights this summer.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney blamed Republicans for the delays, saying they should have stopped the sequester. He noted Republicans themselves had called the across-the-board cuts a dumb policy.
“This is a result of sequester that is never meant to be law,” Carney said Monday. “And it was never meant to be law because of consequences like this.”
The FAA argues the furloughs to air traffic controllers are required because it must make cuts across its budgets, even to workers who have previously been deemed “essential employees.”
The agency is required to cut its 2013 budget by $600 million.
According to the website FlightAware.com, airports like New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport experienced delays Monday as long as two hours and 45 minutes. Smaller airports in Charlotte, N.C., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., experienced shorter delays.
Airlines have encouraged their passengers to blame the sequester for the delays as well.
Passengers in some cases have been directed at their gates to a website called DontGroundAmerica.com that argues the FAA will “purposely delay thousands of flights every day” because of the sequester.
The website was created by Airlines for America and the Air Line Pilots Association to pressure Congress to roll back the furloughs for air traffic controllers.
The website includes a form letter airline passengers can send to lawmakers.
“Send a message to the White House, the Department of Transportation, the FAA and Congress, and tell them: ‘Don’t ground America!’ ” the website says. “Tell Congress and the [Obama] administration that you oppose FAA-imposed flight delays.”
This is the first week many federal employees have been sent home without pay. The furloughs were instituted to help cut $85 billion in government spending from March through the end of the fiscal year in September.
The Environmental Protection Agency started furloughing 17,000 employees on Monday for 10 days each. The Office of Management and Budget began furloughs Monday for 480 employees. They will lose 10 days. Park Police told 760 officers they will be docked 14 days starting Wednesday.
This comes after the Labor Department told 4,000 staffers that they would face an average of five furlough days starting on April 15.
Additionally, the IRS formally told employees Monday that it will shut down operations on five days to meet the demands of sequestration.
Flight delays have been one of the most visible aspects of the sequester since it went into effect.
Republicans argue the FAA is purposefully making cuts to hurt airline passengers and score political points.
But FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a Senate panel this week the furloughs were unavoidable.
“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,” he said.
Huerta insisted safety would be the FAA’s No. 1 concern, which could lead to delays.
“We will only allow the amount of air traffic that we can handle safely to take off and land,” he said. “This means travelers should expect delays.”
Airports Council International Vice President of Safety and Regulatory Affairs Chris Oswald told The Hill it was too early to assess whether flight delays were the sole result of FAA furloughs.
For instance, he said foggy weather was also a factor in delays Sunday at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
“Today is the first day we began pressure testing the system,” Oswald said Monday. “The real testing of the system will be in the summer when the traffic goes up because of vacations.”
Oswald also said it could be tough for airlines to convince passengers to blame Washington and not the airlines themselves for the delays.
“From my experience as a passenger, the most frustrating thing is when you get inconsistent or incorrect information about when you might able to go,” Oswald said.
Erik Wasson and Ramsey Cox contributed to this report.