April 23, 2013

Federal cuts expected to slow flights into Maine

Major airports are seeing delays of up to two hours as 1,500 traffic controllers are furloughed daily.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — One day after automatic federal budget cuts hit the Federal Aviation Administration, travelers have been delayed as long as two hours at major airports and are likely to see more delays trickling down to smaller airports like the Portland International Jetport.

click image to enlarge

Lauren Messner of New York City waits for her delayed flight home at the Portland International Jetport in Portland Monday afternoon on April 22, 2013. Messner, originally from Portland, was told when she checked-in that her flight was delayed for one hour due to the air-traffic controller cutbacks.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Nick Repenning of Whitefield checks the flight screen to see if a flight is on time at the Portland International Jetport in Portland Monday afternoon on April 22, 2013.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

Twenty-five air traffic controllers based at Portland's airport and another 22 at Bangor International Airport are among the 47,000 FAA workers who will have to take one furlough day every two-week pay period under the federal spending cuts known as sequestration.

The FAA, industry groups and lawmakers have warned that reduced staffing would cause delays, which became apparent almost immediately.

On Sunday, nearly 400 delayed flights nationwide were attributed to the staffing reductions, a particularly significant number since Sunday is not typically a high-travel day and because there was no inclement weather.

The FAA has said the furloughs could cause more delays if there are not enough people to monitor busy air corridors.

On Monday, flights out of New York and Washington were delayed for more than two hours as the FAA kept planes on the ground, The Associated Press reported. Other delays were reported around the country, and are expected to affect airports like Portland's. The flight tracking service FlightAware says flights to Florida are being delayed as long as an hour.

According to FAA regional spokesman Jim Peters, on any given day for the rest of the year, 10 percent of FAA employees will be furloughed. That means 1,500 of the 15,000 air traffic controllers nationwide will stay at home every day.

"The FAA will be working with the airlines and using a comprehensive set of air traffic management tools to minimize the delay impacts of lower staffing as we move into the busy summer travel season," Peters said in a prepared statement. "Some of those tools, such as ground stops and ground delay programs, will be able to be tracked on www.fly.faa.gov. Delays may also result from other traffic management initiatives, such as increasing spacing between planes."

Peters said the FAA would implement traffic management plans at each airport, but he could not provide details about the plans for Portland or Bangor.

Portland jetport Director Paul Bradbury said he learned of the furloughs last week. FAA employees are not under his supervision.

He could not provide a specific plan for how the airport would handle air traffic management, and said the jetport's tower chief was not working Monday.

Bradbury said he does not believe the furloughs will have a huge impact on the air control tower at Portland because the traffic volume is much lower than at bigger airports. He did say that the delays or grounded planes at those airports will have some effect on Portland flights.

"These (delays) tend to build steam," he said.

Flight times out of Portland, which has an on-time arrival rate of about 80 percent, were not affected significantly on Monday, but Bradbury said he expects that to change as the week goes on.

Levi Ring of Portland waited for more than two hours for his friend's flight from Newark, N.J., to arrive Monday night in Portland. Around 10 p.m., Ring learned that the flight -- on United Airlines -- had been delayed again and would not arrive until 12:41 a.m.

Ring blamed the delay on the federal spending cuts.

"I think it's disgusting. There are other ways the government can cut the budget," Ring said. "This is costing the airlines a lot of money and it's putting a great deal of stress on their customers."

Ring observed that most of Monday's flight delays were out of Newark and Washington, D.C. Flights to and from other major airports were on time.

Sandy Steele of Winthrop waited in a jetport lobby for her 17-year-old son, Zachary, who had flown out of San Diego earlier in the day.

Steele said she had heard about possible flight delays, but those delays had no effect on her son's flight. His plane landed around 10 p.m., slightly ahead of schedule.

Steele said she thinks federal agencies like the FAA have exaggerated the situation to create public pressure on Congress.

"There is no better way to torture a person than to make them wait in line for a flight and not know whether they are going to miss their flight," she said.

The FAA furloughs, while expected, generated considerable backlash on Monday.

The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union that represents 11,000 FAA employees, warned in a letter that the furloughs would also reduce staffing of systems specialists and safety inspectors.

Delta Air Lines said it was "disappointed" and warned travelers Monday to expect delays in several major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago, the AP reported. Airline trade groups and the country's biggest pilots union sued the FAA on Friday to try to stop the furloughs, which the groups predicted would delay or cancel flights for as many as one out of every three airline passengers across the country.

"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."

Some members of Congress on Monday criticized the FAA, which had to cut $637 million from its budget, for making little effort to avoid furloughs.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a ranking member of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, implored the agency last week to take another look at its budget.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said the delays are more than an inconvenience.

"Less FAA coverage means risks for public safety, and fewer flights mean millions of dollars lost for businesses that depend on the nation's transportation infrastructure," she said in a prepared statement.

-- Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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