By Jon Hilkevitch, Chicago Tribune reporter
10:32 PM EDT, April 22, 2013
Criticism intensified Monday that the Obama administration is deliberately inconveniencing and potentially endangering the flying public by going ahead with threatened staffing reductions at airport air traffic towers and radar facilities, instead of using flexibility that is available to comply with mandatory federal budget cuts.
But amid the attacks lobbed from Capitol Hill, airline industry and pilots union executive suites and business groups, the Federal Aviation Administration's 10 percent downsizing of on-duty air traffic controllers resulted in no significant impact on passengers in Chicago or most of the U.S. during the first weekday of furloughs under so-called sequestration, officials said.
The FAA's online airport status map, which tracks flight delays at airports coast to coast, showed almost none throughout the day.
The only minor exceptions were on the East Coast, where high winds and heavy traffic — not controller furloughs — created delays of an hour or less at New York and Washington-area airports.
At O'Hare International and Midway airports on Monday, "Everything is running as it should," an FAA spokeswoman said, adding that she was instructed by headquarters in Washington to not be named.
"It is a dynamic situation. Monday traffic is different from Tuesday traffic and Wednesday traffic. Air traffic delays are also affected by weather and other factors. But staffing is being evaluated on a daily basis, and adjustments are being made when they can be. The goal is to keep traffic moving," she said.
The FAA warned last week that average flight delays at O'Hare might be 50 minutes because of the furloughs, climbing to more than two hours for some flights. No specific delay forecasts were issued for Midway.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a U.S. Senate committee Thursday that the agency might be forced to temporarily close the north satellite control tower at O'Hare because of controller furloughs. The north tower was built as part of the O'Hare expansion program to direct planes arriving on Runway 9 Left/27 Right, which opened in late 2008 on the north airfield. The full length of the runway cannot be seen by controllers in O'Hare's main control tower.
But FAA managers and the controllers union at O'Hare worked out a solution to keep the north tower open, according to controllers. FAA officials declined to confirm that was the case, saying only that the tower was in operation Monday.
Through the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30, the FAA's 47,000 employees, including nearly 15,000 controllers, will be required to take one unpaid furlough day during each two-week pay period, officials said.
Airlines for America, the trade group representing most U.S. airlines, and the Air Line Pilots Association have railed against the FAA furlough plan for months, labeling it reckless, disruptive for millions of air travelers and completely unnecessary.
In a statement, Airlines for America said the FAA "will purposely delay thousands of flights every day."
White House press secretary Jay Carney blamed Republicans for the cuts, calling the FAA furloughs "an unfortunate result" of botched budget negotiations in Congress. He said 70 percent of the FAA's expenses are for personnel and that the agency could not accomplish the necessary cost reductions elsewhere.
Yet some members of Congress urged the FAA to stop the furloughs and find other savings in the agency's budget.
"The administration's insistence on deliberately inconveniencing air travelers instead of prioritizing their safety falls right in line with its history of putting politics before common sense," U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said Monday. "I am baffled by the administration's continued insistence on putting its top-line message — that we can't cut a dime without severe consequences — before the safety and well-being of Americans."
But Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Washington, a member of the House Aviation Subcommittee, said Monday that air travelers are now joining children who are being turned away from Head Start programs as the latest examples of how the sequester is damaging the economy.
"Nobody wants these (flight) delays, but the Federal Aviation Administration must manage the airspace safely while the sequester requires air traffic controllers to be furloughed," Larsen said. "There's a lot finger-pointing going on, but the simple truth is that it is Congress' job to fix this."
The Department of Transportation responded to critics by saying: "Sequestration is a blunt instrument — there are no easy choices and every cut has consequences."
Under sequestration, the FAA is required to cut $637 million.
"The FAA has already shifted funds within accounts to avoid furloughs, while maintaining our safety standards and minimizing the impact on the traveling public," said a joint statement issued by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Huerta. "However, the FAA is not permitted to transfer funding across accounts and 70 percent of its operations budget is for personnel, so in addition to cutting contracts, stopping funding for low-traffic towers and reducing travel, the FAA still needs to furlough its 47,000 employees to achieve these congressionally required cuts. Only Congress can stop these delays from continuing."
Wes Venteicher of the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed.
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