Passengers crowd American Airlines’ Terminal 4 at Los Angeles International… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Pilots and a top airline group have filed a lawsuit to stop the federal government from cutting work hours for air traffic controllers this weekend, saying the furloughs will lead to travel delays of up to an hour across the country.
Airlines for America, a trade group for the nation's airlines, on Friday joined a pilots association and operators of regional carriers in a suit that asks the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to prevent job furloughs called for under the so-called budget sequestration.
The court is not expected to respond to the suit until next week. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration has called on the nation's air traffic controllers to take one to two furlough days for every two-week pay period starting Sunday to help the FAA cut more than $600 million from its annual budget.
The airlines and pilots groups say the furloughs are unnecessary and will only frustrate travelers and hurt the nation's rebounding economy. The cuts in work hours among controllers, they argue, will reduce the capacity of the nation's air traffic system, delaying as many as 6,700 flights per day.
"The FAA plan is irresponsible and unnecessary," Nicholas E. Calio, president and chief executive of Airlines for America, said at a news conference. The Air Line Pilots Assn. and the Regional Airline Assn. are also plaintiffs in the suit.
Calio said the FAA should try to find savings by cutting other areas of its budget, such as maintenance and long-term planning.
FAA officials said they don't comment on pending litigation but noted that transportation officials have addressed such suggestions in the past. During a White House press conference in February, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said there was no way to avoid the furloughs.
"Our lawyers are looking at every contract to see what penalties we would have to pay as we begin to cut or adjust contracts," he said. "We're looking at everything possible; and everything possible that's legal, we will do."
Calio said he doesn't expect the Court of Appeals to respond to the lawsuit until next week at the earliest. Until then, he said, delays will ripple across the air traffic system, damaging the nation's resurging economy.
"If delays take effect, it will not be very long before the entire system comes to a grinding halt," said Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Assn., which represents more than 50,000 pilots at 34 U.S. and Canadian airlines.
At Los Angeles International Airport, the nation's third-busiest airport, delays will average about 10 minutes but could extend up to 67 minutes, according to the FAA.
Earlier this month the FAA delayed the closure of the control towers at 149 municipal and regional airports until June. But FAA officials said they could not postpone the furlough of air traffic controllers.
Airline officials and pilots said the furloughs won't threaten the safety of air travel.
"If we can't safely operate a flight, it won't go," Moak said.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., which represents about 14,700 controllers, issued a statement Friday saying Washington's budget feud has turned the nation's aviation system into a "political football."
"We believe the FAA should consider postponing these furloughs just as they did the tower closures in order to work toward a solution that keeps controllers on the job and the American aviation system operating at full capacity," said Paul Rinaldi, the group's president.