WASHINGTON - Airlines and airports across the country are preparing for across-the-board federal budget cuts due to hit next week as if they were a hurricane.
The federal government is warning about delays that could begin in March, when the first cuts take effect, and fewer takeoffs and slower security lines that could worsen in April as federal employees start taking furloughs - mandatory unpaid days off.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has told Congress that most of the Federal Aviation Administration's 47,000 employees would face a day of furlough per two-week pay period, or a 10 percent cut of the work force on any given day.
There are about 14,750 air traffic controllers in the U.S. Some areas such as New York could experience problems even before furloughs begin if overtime budgets are cut.
To handle this major staffing shortage and still maintain safety, federal aviation officials said they would accept fewer airplanes into the system, the same tactic they use when weather is bad. 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.
'PERPETUAL BAD WEATHER'
As a result, passengers may sit on tarmacs and endure delays as they wait for planes to push back from the gate.
"It's going to be like perpetual bad weather," said Kevin Mitchell, the chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. "You're going to have to look at this as if you're going out knowing there's a storm."
In addition, deplaning from international flights could be slower because Customs and Border Protection agents would work fewer hours.
When this might begin in earnest is not yet clear. Government rules require that employees be given 30 days' notice about furloughs, which cannot be given until March 1. But contractors and part-time employees could be cut sooner.
The budget cuts, known as a sequester, "will require indiscriminate spending reductions," LaHood said in a letter Feb. 11 to Barbara Mikulski, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. But so far the FAA is saying very little about what it 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, executive vice president of the Airports Council International - North America.
Aviation executives were reluctant to be quoted by name for fear of appearing to take sides in the dispute in Congress, but many expressed exasperation. An executive of a major airline who is assigned to the New York area said that the problems were approaching as the price of gas was once again nearing $4 a gallon, making any form of travel less attractive.