Federal furloughs could lead to Alaska flight delays

Casey Grove

Furloughs for air traffic controllers set to start Sunday are expected to cause flight delays at airports across the United States, including in Alaska.

Based on information from the Federal Aviation Administration, Alaska Airlines warned customers flying to and from its largest hub cities about the possibility of flight delays of 50 minutes to two hours and a reduction in the rate of planes landing at airports of 30 percent to 40 percent.

For Alaskans, often limited to air travel for getting to or from the state, a cascade of flight delays or cancellations could be a serious inconvenience.

The FAA says an automatic, mandatory reduction in federal spending known as sequestration has forced administrators to put the air traffic controllers on unpaid leave.

With fewer controllers, as many as 6,700 flights a day and one of every three air travelers could be affected, according to the airline industry trade organization Airlines for America.

Airports in hub cities outside Alaska are the most at risk of seeing delays.

According to Alaska Airlines, the FAA warned about impacts to travelers leaving from or coming to Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Newark, San Diego and San Francisco. But major delays or widespread cancellations at those hub cities and others would likely affect all air traffic in the U.S., according to the FAA.

Allen Kenitzer, an FAA spokesman for Alaska, said Saturday he was unable to provide the number of air traffic controllers going on furlough in the state and refused to comment on what effects the administration expects for Alaska air travelers. Kenitzer said all air traffic controllers will have to take one furlough day per two-week pay period.

Alaska Airlines is just one carrier flying to and from the state waiting to see how the furloughs will affect travel, said Paul McElroy, a spokesman for the airline. The FAA provided little specific information, so it was unclear Saturday exactly what to expect when the furloughs start Sunday, McElroy said.

"Some airplanes will be delayed, and then potentially, if the delays start backing up and getting too severe, then the airlines just start to cancel flights," McElroy said. "All of this is really just speculation. We don't know until the furloughs go into effect, and then we'll see the actual consequences."

Alaska Airlines officials said in a written statement Saturday that the airline was not planning to cancel flights ahead of time. But McElroy said it may come to that. Travelers are advised to check their flight's status before heading to their departure airport and should arrive at the airport two hours early for domestic flights and three hours early for international flights, Alaska Airlines said.

The airline said it would divert flights or shuttle passengers via ground transportation, if needed, and that passengers who miss connecting flights due to delays will be able to re-book flights with no fee or increase in fare.

According to Associated Press reports, Airlines for America joined forces with the Regional Airline Association and the Air Line Pilots Association in a lawsuit Friday seeking to stop the furloughs. The two trade associations and the pilots union hope to have air traffic controllers designated as "essential" federal employees, who are exempt from furloughs.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.