Federal officials and air-traffic controllers are detailing where some of the worst delays are likely under automatic government spending cuts scheduled to begin Friday.
Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, warned Wednesday that flights through busy hubs such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco could suffer 90-minute delays because of furloughs anticipated for 10% of controllers. Those delays are expected to ripple across the rest of the country.
The full effect of the cuts is expected in April because controllers must be given 30 days notice about staffing changes.
Huerta told an American Bar Association conference that the 100 air-traffic control towers that will close and 60 that will lose midnight shifts will be chosen based on affecting the fewest people.
The towers are among those with less than 150,000 landings and departures each year, or 10,000 commercial landings and departures.
"We want to minimize the impact on the largest number of travelers," Huerta said. "It's for that reason that we need to start at the lowest-level facilities, meaning the smallest facilities that have the fewest operations."
The cuts appear likely because congressional Republicans, who have resisted changing the $85 billion cuts across the government, argue that the administration could find the 5% savings in ways that don't compromise important functions like airline flights.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing the controllers, issued a 14-page report today detailing the hubs where the delays could be worst.
Atlanta could close one runway, reducing the number of arrivals during clear weather from 126 to 96, according to the report. Chicago and Houston could lose more than one-third of their flights by using two runways rather than three, the report said.
"Taken together, these reductions will add up to a national airspace facing significant delays throughout the system," the report said.
Paul Rinaldi, the association's president, will speak about the cuts today at an Aero Club luncheon.
Because similar spending cuts are projected each year for the next decade, the union warned that controllers could retire from some of the busiest areas of the country in New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago.
For example, 103 out of 376 controllers in New York could retire Jan. 1, 2014. In Atlanta, 125 out of 475 controllers could retire. In Chicago, 140 out of 432 controllers could retire.
"These numbers are staggering, especially given the fact that it takes three years to train a new hire to work in such complex airspace," the report said.