WASHINGTON — Airlines and airports nationwide are preparing for across-the-board federal budget cuts due to hit next week as if they were a hurricane, although with even less certainty about how many flights might be canceled and passengers stranded. But the federal government is warning about takeoff delays and slower security lines that could begin soon after March 1, the day the cuts are to start taking effect.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has told Congress that most of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) 47,000 employees would face a day of furlough per two-week pay period, or on average a cut of 10 percent of the workforce on any given day. That could mean 1,000 fewer air traffic controllers out of the 15,000 now on duty each day.
To handle such a staffing shortage while maintaining safety, federal-aviation officials said they would accept fewer airplanes into the system, the same tactic they use in bad weather. That means that in places where airplanes normally follow one another with a six- or seven-mile gap, there might be a 10- to 20-mile gap.
“It’s going to be like perpetual bad weather,” said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.
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There also could be longer security lines because of anticipated furloughs of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers. In addition, deplaning from international flights could be slower because Customs and Border Protection agents may be working fewer hours.
When this would begin in earnest is not clear. Government rules require that employees be given 30 days’ notice, which cannot be given until March 1.
In some areas, such as New York, there could be problems even before furloughs begin if overtime is cut.
FAA officials are saying little about what the agency would do, although the National Air Traffic Controllers Association is preparing a study correlating levels of furloughs to reductions in the ability to handle traffic.
“Everyone is frustrated with the lack of specific information,” said Deborah McElroy, president of the Airports Council International — North America. “Airports are looking at their contingency plans, but the difficulty is, I don’t know what I’m planning for.”
Many aviation executives were reluctant to be quoted by name for fear of appearing to take sides in the dispute in Congress, but many expressed frustration. An executive of a major airline who is assigned to the New York area pointed out that the problem approached as the price of gasoline was again nearing $4 a gallon, making any form of travel less attractive.