Transportation secretary warns of flight cancellations, delays under sequester

Rachel Rose Hartman
The Ticket

President Barack Obama's administration on Friday brought out Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to strike fear in the American public over the sequester right where it hurts: their impatience with air travel.

Ahead of the sequester—across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect March 1 in the absence of a budget deal—the Federal Aviation Administration is planning to reduce expenditures by $600 million, the FAA and Department of Transportation announced on Friday.

LaHood addressed the press at Friday's White House briefing to detail just how badly the department believes that cut would disrupt Americans' travel plans.

"Travelers should expect delays. Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and others could experience delays up to 90 minutes during peak hours, because we have fewer controllers on staff. Delays in these major airports will ripple across the country. ... Once airlines see the potential impact of these furloughs, we expect that they will change their schedules and cancel flights," LaHood said.

The Department of Transportation announced on Friday that in an effort to maintain safety standards while making necessary cuts under the sequester, 47,000 FAA employees would be furloughed one day per pay period, select midnight air traffic controller shifts would be eliminated, 100 air traffic towers would be closed, and preventative maintenance and equipment provisioning would be reduced beginning in April. The announcement was made by LaHood and Michael Huerta, administrator of the FAA, in a letter sent on Friday to unions and government entities.

Reporters at Friday's briefing questioned why money couldn't be cut from other parts of the department's budget and why the secretary was announcing such severe changes so close to the sequester deadline.

"Are you just basically throwing out whatever sounds like the most severe consequence in order to ratchet up pressure?" one reporter asked.

LaHood scoffed at that suggestion. "The idea that we're just doing this to create some kind of horrific scare tactic is nonsense," he said.

But LaHood, a Republican former Illinois congressman, conceded that political machinations are very much a part of his role in current negotiations, confirming that he had spoken with about "a half-dozen" Republicans and their staffers about the sequester. "They're hoping that maybe I can influence some of the people in my own party," he said.

He was also aggressive in his description of what politicians might face should the department make good on its plans: "Your phones are going to start ringing off the hook when these people are delayed at airports and when their flights are delayed or their flights are canceled or their air tower is closed."

Among the air towers the government marked on Friday for potential closure was the Southern Wisconsin Regional tower in Janesville, Wis., which is located in House Budget Commitee chairman Paul Ryan's district.

Ryan's office did not immediately return Yahoo News' request for comment.

LaHood called on Republicans to "step up" and offer solutions on how to avoid the sequester. Republicans passed legislation last year in the House to buy down the sequester, and Democrats in the current Congress have introduced bills to buy down the sequester.