NEW YORK – Flight delays piled up across the country Monday as thousands of air traffic controllers began taking unpaid days off because of federal budget cuts, providing the most visible impact yet of Congress and the White House’s failure to agree on a long-term deficit-reduction plan.
The Federal Aviation Administration kept planes on the ground because there weren’t enough controllers to monitor busy air corridors. Cascading delays held up flights at some of nation’s busiest airports, including New York, Baltimore and Washington. Many operations were more than two hours behind schedule.
At one point, the delays were so bad that passengers on several Washington-New York shuttle flights could have reached their destination faster by taking the train.
Nearly a third of flights at New York’s LaGuardia airport scheduled to take off before 3 p.m. were delayed 15 minutes or more, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. Last Monday, just 6 percent of LaGuardia’s flights were delayed.
The situation was similar at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, in Newark, N.J., and in Philadelphia, with roughly 20 percent of flights delayed.
The furloughs had minimal impact, and indirectly at that, on flights Monday at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
“The possibility does exist that our airport will experience a ripple effect based on what is happening in some of the major hub markets, especially in the Northeast corridor,” said C. Douglas Hartmayer, a spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority..
Passengers can keep tabs on their flights, and whether they are delayed, by checking the airport’s website or checking directly with the airline they are flying on.
At airports, Monday is typically one of the busiest days, when many high-paying business travelers depart for a week on the road. The FAA’s controller cuts – a 10 percent reduction of its staff – went into effect Sunday. The full force was not felt until Monday morning.
One thing working in fliers’ favor Monday was relatively good weather at most major airports. Wind gusts in New York, snow in Denver and thunderstorms in Miami added to some delays, but generally, there were clear skies and no major storms.
However, the furloughs will continue for months, raising the risk of a turbulent summer travel season. And the lack of controllers could exacerbate weather problems, especially spring and summer thunderstorms.
There’s no way for passengers to tell in advance which airport or flights will experience delays.
FAA officials have said they have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 agency employees – including nearly 15,000 controllers – because the agency’s budget is dominated by salaries. Each employee will lose one day of work every other week. The FAA has said that planes will have to take off and land less frequently, so as not to overload the remaining controllers on duty.
Critics have said the FAA could reduce its budget in other spots that wouldn’t delay travelers.
“There’s a lot finger-pointing going on, but the simple truth is that it is Congress’ job to fix this,” said Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat and member of the House aviation panel.
Some travel groups have warned that the disruptions could hurt the economy.
“If these disruptions unfold as predicted, business travelers will stay home, severely impacting not only the travel industry but the economy overall,” the Global Business Travel Association warned the head of the FAA in a letter Friday.
United Airlines said there were “alarming pockets” of delays and warned that if a solution isn’t found, the problem could “affect air travel reliability for our customers.”
Delta Air Lines cautioned travelers to expect delays in New York; Philadelphia; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Chicago; San Francisco; Los Angeles; and San Diego.
Many flights heading to Florida were seeing delays of up to an hour. By late Monday, delays into Los Angeles were expected to average three hours.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly asserted that air traffic controllers were not furloughed here.
News Business Reporter Matt Glynn contributed to this report.