Airlines direct their passengers to blame sequester for long flight delays

Airlines are encouraging their passengers to blame Congress for flight delays as sequester furloughs begin.

Passengers are, in some cases, being directed to a website called DontGroundAmerica.com to explain delays in their flights.

The website was created by Airlines for America (A4A) and the Air Line Pilots Associations (ALPA) to pressure Congress to roll back furloughs for air traffic controllers.

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“The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] is furloughing thousands of air traffic controllers and will purposely delay thousands of flights every day,” the website says.

“The FAA's unnecessary and reckless action will disrupt air travel for millions of Americans, cost jobs and threatens to ground the U.S. economy to a halt. It doesn't have to be that way. The FAA can make other cost cuts, and deem air traffic controllers ‘essential employees,’” the site states.

A reporter from The Hill heard the announcement, including the direction to the website, at Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport during a one-hour delay on a flight to Washington's Reagan National Airport.

The FAA has instituted the furloughs to trim $600 million from its budget under the sequester.

Workers at other government agencies were also having their first furlough days this week. The furloughs were instituted to help cut $85 billion in government spending from March through the end of the fiscal year in September.

Prior to the implementation of the sequester, the FAA warned that the automatic budget cuts would result in flight delays because it would have to furlough air traffic controllers and close flight towers. Reports of long delays at airports around the country were being made on Sunday.

Republicans in Congress have argued that the FAA is purposefully making cuts that will impact airline passengers to score political points.

“The FAA has the flexibility to reduce costs elsewhere, such as contracts, travel, supplies, and consultants, or to apply furloughs in a manner that better protects the most critical air traffic control facilities,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement last week. “Yet rather than take this approach, the administration has made choices that appear designed to have the greatest possible impact on the traveling public.”

Airports Council International Vice President of Safety and Regulatory Affairs Chris Oswald said it was too early to assess whether flight delays were the result of FAA furloughs.

"Today is the first day we began pressure testing the system," Oswald said. "The real testing of the system will be in the summer when the traffic goes up because of vacations."

Oswald said ground delays reported Sunday at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and New York's John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports were blamed on furloughs, but the foggy weather was another problem at LAX. 

"It did look like LAX experienced some delays," he said. "It was a combination of staffing issues and low visibility. There was fog coming in from the Pacific."

Oswald said a combination of factors will likely be to blame for future delays, but that furloughs could exacerbate problems.

"On any of these days, it will likely be a combination of the furloughs exacerbating what's already going on," he said. "It's going to make the system less resistant."

Oswald said it may be tough for airlines to get passengers to blame officials in Washington, however.

"Passengers usually blame, not just the airline, but the airport," he said, adding that the most immediate concern for passengers is reaching their destination.

"From my experience as a passenger, the most frustrating thing is when you get inconsistent or incorrect information about when you might able to go," Oswald said.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a Senate committee last week that his agency cannot avoid furloughing its workers because the sequester requires across-the-board cuts to its budget.

“To reach the figure we need to cut from our payroll—which is our largest operating cost—we have to furlough 47,000 of our employees for up to 11 days between now and September,” Huerta said.

“The furloughs will reduce controller work hours at all airports with towers, but also at radar facilities across the country,” he said.

Huerta insisted safety would be the FAA’s number one concern, which could lead to delays.

“We will only allow the amount of air traffic that we can handle safely to take off and land,” he said. “This means travelers should expect delays."

The DontGroundAmerica website includes a form letter airline passengers can send to lawmakers.

“Send a message to the White House, the Department of Transportation, the FAA and Congress, and tell them: 'Don't ground America!'" the website says. “Tell Congress and the [Obama] administration that you oppose FAA-imposed flight delays.”

This story was posted at 10:20 a.m. and updated at 12:29 p.m.