FAA furloughs lead to flight delays

by: Frank Field Updated:

Sea-Tac —

Travelers are starting to deal with flight delays as the Federal Aviation Administration furloughs employees because of congressional budget cuts.  The worst delay thus far at SeaTac was a flight from Los Angeles International that was almost three hours late.  In all, about a half-dozen flights were behind schedule landing, though none were delayed by staffing problems in Seattle.

At any given airport, the FAA says 10 percent of its air traffic controllers have been forced to take unpaid time off.  Those furloughs started yesterday.  Each employee furloughed will lose one day of work every other week.

Troy Harrison of Auburn has been a controller for 24 years. He says the only way to ensure safety with fewer eyes on the skies is to limit the number of planes in the air.

 “You know you get on I-5 or 167 and got the meter - you know red light green light? It’s gonna be like that at the airport except it’s going to be a lot longer,” he said.

 The FAA said in a statement today it is working "to minimize the delay impacts of lower staffing as we move into the busy summer travel season."

 But the FAA has also furloughed the people who maintain and inspect the equipment that pilots and controllers use to get planes safety through the skies.  The union that represents those workers is the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, or PASS.  A PASS spokesperson says that at some point, something will break, delaying or grounding flights somewhere in the country.

 Monika Warner said, "You're going to come to a point where you're going to have a higher failure rate on your equipment because it hasn't been tended to in a timely manner."

 Warner says the furloughs aren't making flying unsafe yet, but it concerns her as a flyer.

 "I'm telling you as I get on a plane, I'm certainly not as confident as I've ever been since I've been working in the industry,” she said.

 SeaTac spokesperson Perry Cooper told KIRO 7 that the FAA won’t let planes fly if there is a safety concern, and that there is no FAA project going on at the moment affected by sequestration.  Cooper also explained that Sea Tac isn’t maxed out on the number of planes that can take off or land in a given hour, so it can handle furloughs better than larger airports such as those in New York or LAX.

 But Harrison says there are air traffic control centers that are already using overtime to maintain normal staffing levels.  All it will take is one control tower to cause a ripple effect through the system and travelers will experience delays, and missed connections without notice.  And that will continue through the busy summer travel season because the FAA’s fiscal year starts Oct. 1.