That was the less-than-reassuring message from the FAA this week after furloughs of air traffic controllers went into effect in response to mandatory federal budget cuts.
“Travelers can expect a wide range of delays. . . . Controllers may space planes farther apart to manage traffic with current staff, which may lead to delays at airports,” the FAA said on its airspace system status webpage.
For their part, travel agents are concerned that delays in air travel will irritate their clients, make the job of planning complex itineraries a chore and discourage travel.
So far, though, the furloughs and resulting air travel delays had yet to cause a crisis, agents told Travel Market Report.
What to expect
According to Flight Stats, there were 7,027 delays nationwide on Monday and 6,396 on Tuesday.
Airline industry groups have predicted daily ground delays at seven major U.S. airports resulting in delays of about 3,800 flights daily.
“[A]n additional six major U.S. airports will require daily traffic management initiatives resulting in approximately 2,900 additional daily flights being delayed,” according to court documents filed this week by airline groups seeking to stop the FAA from furloughing air traffic controllers.
Earlier this year, secretary of transportation Ray LaHood and FAA administrator Michael Huerta warned in a letter to the aviation industry that “[f]lights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours, because we have fewer controllers on staff.
Could affect travel decisions
Public awareness of the issue could lead to decreased bookings over the summer, said Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York.
“The potential delays and frustrations will harm all travelers and influence their decision to travel,” said Wilson-Buttigieg.
For corporate travel agencies, the situation could become problematic if cancellations of shuttle flights affect complex itineraries.
“We haven’t gotten a lot of frustration stories so far,” said Mimi Cleary, vice president of corporate services for Atlas Travel in Milford, Mass. “We’ve gotten a couple cancellations, and who knows what it’s from, but I definitely think it’s related to the FAA.”
Cleary said the impact could remain minimal if inessential flights are combined and rescheduled in a timely manner.
“My biggest concern is if the situation does spread, the airlines are going to look up ways to make more revenue,” she added.
Other agents had yet to feel any fallout from the furloughs and resulting delays.
“As far as I know, we have not been affected by the FAA cuts to date,” said Paul Seiferth, president and owner of Terra Travel in Phoenix, Ariz. “Or, we haven't heard about it from our clients.”
Months of delays
The cuts are expected to be in place until Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year, and months of regular delays are possible, according to lawmakers.
The tarmac delay rule, which limits the time loaded planes can wait on the ground, may also be revoked, allowing aircraft to sit indefinitely with passengers on board.
Lawmakers accused the FAA of mismanaging its response to budget cuts imposed by the U.S. Congress earlier this year.
“The FAA’s management of sequestration is quickly going from bad to worse,” said Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
“Given that the FAA’s budget increased more than 100% over the last 15 years, finding 5% in savings shouldn’t need to significantly impact our nation’s aviation operations,” said Shuster. He listed $825 million in FAA expenses on non-personnel items that he said could have been cut before furloughing air traffic workers.
Solution needed soon
Wilson-Buttigieg of Valerie Wilson Travel called on the private and public sectors to find a solution as soon as possible.
“I am hoping that the large corporate CEOs and the major airlines will work together with both sides of the aisle in Washington to resolve this matter in an expeditious manner,” said Wilson-Buttigieg.
“We need the business traveler to keep traveling, and we need leisure travelers to keep coming to this country.”
Impact on tourism
Also concerned about the potential spillover effects was the Global Gateway Alliance, which advocates for improvements to Greater New York airports.
"With Newark, LaGuardia and JFK already experiencing the longest delays in the country, furloughing local air traffic controllers will without a doubt have a significant negative effect on our economy — leading to a decrease in tourism and revenue for our local businesses, hotels and restaurants," said Joseph J. Sitt, chairman of the alliance.