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FAA furloughs create turbulence but no major trauma

April 23, 2013 at 4:18 AM ET

Video: Airlines are warning that if the government continues furloughing air traffic controllers, one in every three travelers could be hit with delays or cancellations during peak travel season. NBC’s Lisa Myers reports.

Maybe they should have furloughed Chicken Little.

Dire predictions to the contrary, the furlough of FAA air traffic controllers (ATC) that began on Sunday hasn’t led to massive delays and cancellations. Although there have been sporadic issues since then, it’s safe to say the nation’s air transportation system hasn’t come to a grinding halt and that the sky most definitely hasn’t fallen.

Along with weather, "Staffing challenges at regional centers lead to ground delays and more spacing between flights around the country," the FAA told TODAY on Monday.

While delays of 30 minutes to three-and-a-half hours were seen in some airports, and several airlines canceled flights, others had no issues.

“There are a lot of factors that go into creating delays so pinning it on one thing is difficult,” said Mark Duell, vice president of operations for FlightAware.com. “If there’s better staffing or the weather is good or there are fewer flights overall, everything would be fine. But when two or three of those are compromised, that’s when you get problems.”

It’s more surprising, perhaps, that there aren’t more problems more of the time, given the complexity of the system.

“People don’t think of it this way but there are over 5,000 airplanes in the sky at any given time,” said Gregory “Sid” McGuirk, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and former FAA controller. “It’s a very, very large and very, very complex system.”

faa furlough sequester flight delays
FlightAware.com
This screenshot from FlightAware.com displays all commercial flights over the U.S. at 3 p.m. on Monday, April 22. With upwards of 5,000 planes in the air at any given time, local delays can have nationwide repercussions.

And there’s more to it than the stereotypical image of a huddle of controllers staring at little white blips on black radar screens in that tall, skinny building you see at the airport. Such “tower control” personnel manage traffic within 3 to 5 miles of the airport after it’s been handed off from controllers in remote facilities that handle larger parcels of air space and traffic “en-route” between airports.

The result is essentially a system that analyzes a host of factors — arriving and departing traffic, runway configurations, local and national weather, etc. — to determine an acceptance rate for incoming aircraft.

“It’s like a funnel,” said Jim Swenberger, a consultant with the Air Traffic Consultant Group LLC and another former controller, “and there are probably 30 things that go into the acceptance rate at any particular airport.”

One of which, of course, is ATC staffing levels. “Airports have rushes, or ‘pushes’ and you want to be able to rotate people through them,” Swenberger told NBC News. “But when you have fewer people, there are few opportunities for breaks and you end up with the same people always in the same high-stress positions.”

Furloughs all but certainly exacerbate the situation: “As a result of employee furloughs due to sequestration, the FAA is implementing traffic management initiatives at airports and facilities around the country,” said the agency in a statement, citing “staffing challenges” in New York, Dallas, Jacksonville and Los Angeles.

Generally speaking, those initiatives entail spacing incoming planes farther apart to lower airport acceptance rates and implementing ground delays at other airports to prevent previously scheduled flights from taking off and adding to the backlog.

According to FAA, roughly 400 delays in the system on Sunday were attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough. Meanwhile, as of late Monday, FlightStats.com was reporting 4,842 delays (and 207 cancelations) resulting from a combination of weather, runway maintenance and ground delays.

All of which only adds to the challenge of determining exactly what impact controller furloughs will have on airport operations and the number of flights that will be delayed or canceled as a result. Things could get ugly come summer when bad weather and heavier traffic will add more stress to the system but in the meantime, the sky most definitely isn’t falling.

“We’re in uncharted waters here,” said McGuirk. “I spent 35 years with the FAA and never once in those 35 years has any controller ever been furloughed. Anybody who says they know what’s going to happen is blowing smoke.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

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