WASHINGTON - Automatic spending cuts could force some of the nation's busiest airports to close runways, causing widespread flight delays and cancellations, the union representing air traffic controllers said Wednesday.
The spending cuts are scheduled to go into effect on Friday, but furloughs of air traffic controllers won't kick in until April because the Federal Aviation Administration is required by law to give its employees advance notice. That will delay most of the impact of the spending cuts on air travel for at least a month.
Significant furloughs would leave too few controllers to handle planes at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, for example, forcing the closure of one of its three runways, said the report by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Instead of 126 landings per hour, there would be only 96 landings, the report said. Hartsfield handles more passengers than any other airport in the world. Houston's Intercontinental and Chicago's O'Hare airports may also have to close runways, it said.
"What Congress and everybody needs to understand is that the world's busiest airport runs like a Swiss watch," said Victor Santore, the union's Southern regional vice-president. "If you slow down the arrival rate, the national airspace system will most certainly suffer. It takes hours to recover at Hartsfield."
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has already notified the agency's employees that they should be prepared to be furloughed one or two days per bi-weekly pay period between April and September. The FAA is also planning to eliminate midnight shifts for air traffic controllers at 60 airport towers, close over 100 control towers at smaller airports and reduce preventative maintenance of equipment.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has predicted that flights to cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because fewer controllers will be on duty.
The union report called that estimate "conservative."
Huerta is expected to be questioned about the likely impact of spending cuts and furloughs at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee later Wednesday.
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