The government has no choice but to furlough air traffic controllers in the event of automatic spending cuts, raising the specter of widespread flight delays and runway closures, the Federal Aviation Administration chief told skeptical Republicans Wednesday.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that one of two control towers at Chicago's O'Hare international Airport might have to be closed because there will not be enough controllers to meet minimum staffing levels. If that happens, Huerta said, the airport's north runway would be shut down, which would have a ripple effect around the country.
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 FAA 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.
Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport is on a list of potential air traffic control cuts targeting more than the 200 airports nationwide. The local airport is targeted for possible elimination of just the overnight shift or the entire tower.
A report released Wednesday by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association outlined the ripple effects that are predicted by tower shutdowns.
''The number of towers targeted for closure is far higher than anticipated, and will be a serious burden for the communities that rely on air traffic control services to attract and maintain businesses,'' the report states.
Huerta said about 85 percent of the agency's 47,000 people work "in the field," including 15,000 air traffic controllers. They're going to take the brunt of the cuts because the agency has little flexibility to cut contracts with the exception of contracts for the operation of control towers at small airports, he said.
That didn't satisfy some lawmakers.
"This is the time to sharpen your pencil," Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the committee, told Huerta. "We believe you have the flexibility within those lines of business to move money."
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 preventive 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.