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LaHood warns of flight delays if budget cuts hit

Travelers should expect flight delays of up to 90 minutes at major U.S. airports if budget standoff isn't resolved, U.S. Transportation chief says.

February 22, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Wes Venteicher, Los Angeles Times
  • Aircraft at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. More than 100 small air traffic control towers will be closed, an additional 60 towers may eliminate overnight shifts and staffing at airports across the country will be cut back if the budget standoff isn't resolved.
Aircraft at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. More than 100 small air… (Richard Derk, For the Times )

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration issued a travel advisory Friday: Because of a budget standoff in Washington, flights will be delayed.

That was the message Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood delivered at the daily White House briefing as he outlined the impact that across-the-board budget cuts would have on air travel, a drumbeat he acknowledged was aimed by the administration at Republicans in Congress.

"I would describe my presence here with one word — Republican," LaHood said of the White House. "They're hoping that maybe I can influence some of the people in my own party."

LaHood described a nettlesome set of potential problems if, as scheduled, $600 million is eliminated from the Federal Aviation Administration's budget this year as part of the so-called sequester cuts set to kick in March 1.

More than 100 small air traffic control towers will be closed, an additional 60 towers may eliminate overnight shifts, and staffing at airports across the country will be cut back, delaying flights up to 90 minutes at peak times, LaHood said.

"It's going to be very painful for the flying public," the former congressman said.

Cliff Winston, an economist at the Brookings Institution, expressed skepticism Friday that the cuts were as inflexible as they have been presented.

"There is certainly room to make cuts where they'll be affecting traffic in the least harmful way," he said.

LaHood is the latest Cabinet member to come forward to paint a grim picture of the federal government under the slashed budget. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned repeatedly about the effect the cuts would have on the Pentagon, saying that they could turn the U.S. military into a "second rate" power.

Obama stood with first responders earlier this week and warned that basic police and fire services could be curtailed if lawmakers can't reach an agreement to delay the cuts.

The warnings have Republicans, who once decried the potential effect of the spending cuts, accusing the White House of trying to cause a panic. Increasingly, Republicans have suggested the reduced spending would have minimal immediate effect and might force Washington to tighten its belt.

Their latest calls for fiscal responsibility come a week after the Congressional Budget Office warned lawmakers that a rising deficit could restrict the U.S. government's financial flexibility, limiting its ability to use tax and spending policies to respond to unexpected national challenges.

LaHood denied exaggerating the effect.

"And the idea that we're just doing this to create some kind of a horrific scare tactic is nonsense," he said.

LaHood said the FAA's 47,000 employees will be furloughed for at least one day per two-week pay period — effectively, a 10% pay cut — and that the department had begun talks with the unions and airlines about the changes.

He said curtailed staffing would mean fewer air traffic controllers monitoring the skies and slower repair and maintenance.

In addition to air traffic controllers, sequestration cuts to the Transportation Security Administration could be felt in airports as early as March.

"Sequestration's mandated reductions would require TSA to furlough its frontline workforce and reduce its operations at our nation's airports, substantially increasing passenger wait times at security checkpoints," Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.

The full effect of the result would probably be felt by April 1.

"And once airlines see the potential impact of these furloughs, we expect that they will change their schedules and cancel flights," LaHood said.

An FAA news release, available at http://www.faa.gov, lists the air traffic control facilities that could be closed, along with facilities where night shifts could be eliminated. Los Angeles International Airport is not on the list. More information on the potential effect at LAX is expected next week.

Trade group Airlines for America issued a statement Friday urging Congress to prevent reductions in air travel.

"Air transportation is a key driver of our economy, and should not be used as a political football. We urge Congress and the administration to work together to ensure that the 2 million customers and 50,000 tons of cargo that fly every day can continue to get to their destinations safely and efficiently," spokeswoman Jean Medina said.

The spending cuts at issue were approved by the White House and Congress in 2011 and designed to be so loathsome that they would force the two parties to compromise on a broader deficit and debt reduction deal. That deal, however, has been elusive, and a week before the cuts take effect, there is little sign of a serious effort to reach even a short-term agreement.

Nonetheless, Airlines for America expressed optimism about the coming cuts.

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