After months of inside-the-Beltway drama, the impact of sequestration cutbacks moved to center stage America on Monday as the aviation system was slowed by the furlough of 1,500 air traffic controllers.
With about 10 percent of the controllers who direct 23,000 planes a day scheduled to be off daily until October, both industry and government officials forecast that the effect would snowball as the nation enters peak travel season.
Short on staff and besieged by brisk winds at the three big New York area airports, controllers fell behind by mid-morning Monday and never caught up. The Newark, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports reported delays of one to three hours.
Most flights from the major Washington area airports ran close to on time, but some headed to New York faced long delays on the ground.
When New York's three mega-airports fall behind schedule, that often has a ripple effect as far as the West Coast. By mid-afternoon Monday, flights into the US Airways hub in Charlotte, N.C., were late in arriving; by evening, airports in Miami and Los Angeles reported lengthy delays because of controller shortages. Meanwhile, an ice storm at Denver's airport further gummed up the system.
As TV crews panned across anxious and angry passengers in New York terminals, the debate revived in Washington over whether the controller furloughs announced last week were necessary or a White House ploy to dramatize the effects of sequestration.
"Our aviation system should not be used as a pawn in budget debate," said Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. "The livelihood of our economy is dependent on air commerce, and the financial strength of our airlines and the people they employ are at risk."
He predicted that delays would spread in the weeks ahead if the Federal Aviation Administration presses on with a plan to recoup $200 million of the $637 million it must cut to meet sequestration goals this fiscal year.
After the furlough plan was presented last week, House Republicans insisted that FAA cuts should be made elsewhere and the airlines went to court in an attempt to block them. The Obama administration brushed off suggestions that air travel had become "a political football," but crowds of delayed passengers undoubtedly made better television than announcements that federal office workers would have to take unpaid days off.
The FAA has estimated that a third of passengers will face delays during the furloughs, with up to 6,700 flights arriving late at more than a dozen major airports each day. On the worst travel day of 2012, when severe weather crippled the system, about 3,000 flights were delayed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., predicted that fliers would face lengthy waits at virtually every airport.
The longest delays were expected at major hubs, including the three that serve New York, two in Chicago and those in Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco.
"In airports across the country, millions of Americans will get their first taste of the pain of sequestration," Reid said on the Senate floor. "But many Americans have been feeling that pain for weeks. We cannot and we should not only address the FAA cuts. We cannot ignore the sequester's overall effect on Americans."
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., ranking member of the House aviation subcommittee, defended the FAA furloughs as necessary but said the issue needs resolution.
"There's a lot finger-pointing going on, but the simple truth is that it is Congress's job to fix this," Larsen said. "Flight delays are just the latest example of how the sequester is damaging the economy and hurting families across the country."
But as the first effects of the controller furloughs began to be seen, some Democrats broke ranks to say that Congress should find money elsewhere to reverse the cuts.
"Simply put, we cannot allow these furloughs to go through, because if they go through, it will make flying on a normal day seem like you're flying in blizzard weather," Sen. Charles Schumer, N.Y., said at a Sunday news conference.
Greg Principato, president of a group that represents U.S. airports, said the cuts would "create a ripple effect throughout our highly interconnected system, affecting travelers at both large and small airports. We believe that these delays will get significantly worse as we move into peak summer travel season."
Passengers faced another sequestration frustration as furloughs of Transportation Security Administration workers caused peak-hour backups at security checkpoints, and passengers on international flights arriving at Dulles International Airport faced 30-minute delays clearing short-staffed customs stations.
"We're basically telling them to plan on a little bit of extra time to clear security," said Chris Paolino, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. "In terms of the FAA (furloughs), it's almost like a weather situation, where we're advising people to check with their airlines in case there are delays."
By ASHLEY HALSEY III AND LUZ LAZO
The Washington Post