Airline passengers will face major delays if Congress allows across-the-board cuts to the budgets of agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned Friday.
"This is very painful for us because it involves our employees, but it's going to be very painful for the flying public," LaHood said.
"Obviously, as always, safety is our top priority and we will never allow [more than] the amount of air travel we can handle safely to take off and land, which means travelers should expect delays," he added.
"Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco and others could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because we have fewer controllers on staff."
LaHood was invited to brief the White House press corps to make the Obama administration's case about the perils of not reaching a deal to avert $85 billion in automatic cuts to domestic and defense spending next Friday.
LaHood said the sequestration cuts, part of the 2011 Budget Control Act, would result in furloughs for the FAA's nearly 47,000 employees, including air traffic controllers.
"Sequester will be a very — will have a very serious impact on the transportation services that are critical to the traveling public and to the nation's economy," LaHood warned.
"At [the Department of Transportation], we will need to cut nearly $1 billion, which will affect dozens of our programs," he continued.
"Over $600 million of these cuts will need to come from the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that controls and manages our nation's skies. As a result of these cuts, the vast majority of FAA's nearly 47,000 employees will be furloughed for approximately one day per pay period until the end of the fiscal year and, in some cases, it could be as many as two days."
LaHood said the FAA has begun preparing airlines and unions about the possibility of furloughs for FAA workers. But he said the effects of the cutbacks would be felt most by airline passengers.
LaHood said members of Congress would likely receive complaints from frustrated passengers who are dealing with flight delays.
"As a former member of Congress, I heard complaints all the
time from my constituents when their flights were delayed or when their
flights were canceled," he said. "Nobody likes a delay. Nobody likes waiting in line. None of us do."
LaHood acknowledged that the White House was seeking to gain a political advantage on congressional Republicans with his dire warning about air travel, even as he denied the administration was using scare tactics about sequestration.
"The idea that we're just doing this to create some kind of scare tactic is nonsense," LaHood said.
"We are required to cut a billion dollars. And if more than half of our
employees are at the FAA ... there has to be some impact. That's
the reason we're announcing what we're announcing."
LaHood, a former Republican member of Congress, added: "I would describe my presence here with one word: Republican. They're hoping that maybe one can influence some of the folks in my party."