The effects of the U.S. government budget cuts that started on March 1 will not likely be felt until April but they could be significant for airlines and their passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency will absorb the mandated spending cuts known as the “sequester” in part by furloughing employees, or requiring them to take several days of unpaid leave. Following 30-day notification, air traffic controllers, security screeners and customs officers will be working fewer overall hours; the result will be flight delays and longer lines at airport checkpoints, aviation officials advise.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca), the union that represents the FAA’s controller workforce, has estimated the effects of “sequestration” at each of 16 major U.S. airports. The group contends that reduced staffing levels at the terminal radar approach control facility and in the airport tower serving Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport in terms of overall passenger traffic, will mean that controllers cannot safely manage simultaneous triple arrivals (“trips”) and dual departures on the five available runways. If controllers abandon the trips arrival configuration, there will be 25 to 30 fewer aircraft landing per hour, Natca said.
Louis Miller, aviation general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, does not dispute Natca’s assessment of the sequester’s impact. “The worst-case scenario we see, it’s true, [is that] we could possibly shut down a runway. That, in our mind, is the worst-case scenario, and the FAA has confirmed that to us,” Miller told AIN. There are some mitigating factors. Traffic has not increased dramatically since the airport opened its fifth runway in 2006, and the number of overall operations has decreased somewhat because airlines are using larger airplanes, he said. But reducing the operational capacity of an airport with 2,300 daily arrivals and departures will have consequences; for example, airlines with connecting flights through Atlanta may have their aircraft held at the origin airports or in the air until runway slots open. The airport is discussing with the FAA the possibility of keeping all runways operating at least during peak hours.
The TSA has indicated that it will furlough its transportation security officers for eight hours each per two-week pay period, or 10 percent of their working hours, Miller said. The reduction in overall staffing hours could lead to longer lines at the airport’s four security checkpoints. “Our biggest concern there is that we could see our wait times at the security checkpoints go up by 15 or 20 minutes during peak hours, and that’s significant. Right now we have very low average wait times,” he said. The airport plans to use its own customer care representatives to help manage people flowing into the checkpoints. Similarly, reduced staffing hours by CBP could lead to longer lines at the airport’s two customs clearance points, Miller said.