WASHINGTON (AP) - Predicting a nightmarish air travel snarl that will stretch from coast to coast, the airline industry and the nation's largest pilots union joined forces Friday to sue the Federal Aviation Administration over its decision to furlough air traffic controllers in order to achieve spending cuts required by Congress.
Two airline trade associations and the Air Line Pilots Association said they have filed a lawsuit asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington to stop the furloughs, which are scheduled to kick in on Sunday. However, the earliest the court is likely to schedule a hearing is sometime next week, after the furloughs have begun, said Nick Calio, head of Airlines for America, which represents major carriers.
The way in which the FAA has chosen to implement the furloughs could result in one out of every three airline passengers across the country suffering flight delays or cancellations, industry officials said at a news conference.
"The impact of these cuts on our industry cannot be overstated," said Faye Black, vice president of the Regional Airline Association, which joined the suit. "We think there is not one airport in the nation that will be immune to this."
Sunday is a light air travel day, but by Monday the effects of the furloughs should start to "snowball," creating an air travel mess the equivalent of having a "Hurricane Sandy in the North and Hurricane Katrina in the South," said Lee Moak, president of the pilots union.
Federal officials have said they have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 of the FAA's employees, including nearly 15,000 controllers, if they hope to cut $637 million from the agency's budget by the end of September, as required under automatic, across-the-board spending cuts imposed by Congress. Each employee will lose one day of work every other week, which will amount to a 10 percent reduction in available controller work hours to staff air traffic facilities on any given day.
FAA officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The controller furloughs will save the agency $200 million, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said earlier this week. But fewer controllers will mean planes have to take off and land less frequently so as not to overload controllers on duty, he said.
Industry officials and some lawmakers have accused the White House of ignoring ways the cuts could have been achieved without furloughing controllers in order to put pressure on Republican lawmakers to rescind the automatic cuts. They've suggested reducing expenditures on outside contractors and travel.
"The administration has made choices that appear designed to have the greatest possible impact on the travelling public," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Huerta, however, has said FAA's budget is dominated by employee salaries since the agency's prime mission is to operate the nation's air traffic system. Other critical employees like air traffic control supervisors and airline and airport inspectors are also being furloughed, and travel has been cut back to safety-related trips. The agency is trying to close 149 air traffic control towers operated under contract for the agency at small airports, but is meeting resistance from members of Congress who don't want towers in their states and districts closed.
An FAA analysis released Thursday said fewer controllers will mean major delays at some of the nation's busiest airports, although the delays will vary significantly depending upon the time of day and other factors unique to each airport.
Maximum delays of more than three hours were predicted for some flights to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world's busiest airport as measured by the number of passengers who pass through it. But many flights arriving at the airport would suffer no delays or only brief delays, according to the FAA analysis.
Other airports predicted to experience significant delays as a result of the furloughs include Newark Liberty in New Jersey, John F. Kennedy and La Guardia in New York, O'Hare in Chicago, Los Angles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Diego and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood in Florida. Airports in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Miami and Charlotte, N.C., as well as Chicago's Midway International Airport, are forecast to experience lesser delays.
However, other busy airports in cities like Denver, Boston, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Las Vegas are unlikely to feel much impact, according to the analysis. That's because each airport's operations are unique, Huerta has said. A decrease in controllers on duty could force Hartsfield and O'Hare, for example, to close a runway, but that's not necessarily the case at other airports.
The FAA's analysis doesn't take into account ripple effects extended delays at some airports may have on air travel elsewhere, agency officials said.
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