Guesswork used to determine furlough-related flight delays

By Danny King
This week, the industry got its first taste of flight delays caused by furloughing FAA employees to meet sequester budget cuts. But it turned out that despite a lot of finger-pointing and politicking, gauging the exact impact of the cuts came down to a bit of guesswork.

That uncertainty didn’t stop the airlines from blaming the FAA for what delays there were or from lobbying the DOT to suspend consumer-friendly tarmac-delay rules.

Initial data seemed to suggest that FAA-imposed furloughs and the resulting staffing shortages increased the number of U.S. flight delays by as much as 40% compared with pre-furlough levels.

The main caution with that conclusion, however, is that the actual cause of flight delays is seldom cut-and-dried. Even so, the furloughs clearly had an impact.

Last week, in the first four days after the furloughs began on April 21, the FAA reported 8,744 delays. The agency attributed about 3,500 of those delays to staffing reductions and said the remainder were predominantly weather related.

Tuesday appeared to be especially onerous, with more than half of that day’s 2,000 flight delays stemming from the furloughs, according to the FAA. Staffing shortages had a particularly painful impact in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Las Vegas and Tampa airports.

Airlines were quick to blame the FAA, with top executives of some carriers using their Q1 earnings calls as platforms to protest the staffing shortages.

United Continental Holdings CEO Jeff Smisek called the FAA “irresponsible” for enacting the furloughs.

“We’re disappointed that the FAA chose this path,” Smisek told analysts and journalists on the call. “Our top priority is to minimize the effect on our customers.”

During Southwest Airlines’ earnings call, CEO Gary Kelly did not directly blame the FAA but said, “There is much frustration. It [the furlough policy] just needs to end very quickly.”

Flight delays appear to be the most immediately visible sign of the effects of federal-budget sequestration, which went into effect March 1. Its required 5% reduction in the budgets of all federal agencies will result in an estimated total of $85 billion a year in spending cuts.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood estimated in late February that more than $600 million of the almost $1 billion in annual Transportation Department (DOT) spending cuts would have to come from the FAA, most of whose 47,000 workers will be furloughed for at least 10% of their workdays.

As a result, LaHood at the time forecasted that peak-flight-time delays into and out of major airports such as New York Kennedy and San Francisco would lengthen by 90 minutes. LaHood also warned that secondary airports serving Boca Raton, Fla., and San Marcos, Texas, might be forced to shutter their air traffic control towers.

In prepared remarks to a house committee last week, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta cited the potential effects of the sequester in his budget request for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Huerta’s request for $15.6 billion marked a 2.2% decrease from this year’s pre-sequester budget, and it assumed no sequester for the next fiscal year.

The proposed budget “represents a balanced approach to achieving a long-term solution to our nation’s budgetary challenges,” Huerta said. “This is critical when one considers the impact of the sequester on our aviation system.”

But what exactly constitutes a flight delay, or a staffing-related delay for that matter, depends on who’s doing the tracking. For example, aviation data provider FlightStats pegged the average number of daily U.S. flight delays at about 6,700, or more than three times the FAA’s estimates.

Additionally, when it comes to showing sequestration’s effects on flight delays, FlightStats’ numbers are inconclusive. Through the first three days of last week, FlightStats estimated that about 23% of U.S. flights were either late or canceled, which was identical to the average percentage of delayed and canceled flights between Feb. 20 and April 20.

The pre-furlough numbers are consistent with data from the DOT, whose Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) pegged the airline industry’s on-time rate at about 80% for February, the most recent month tracked.

Of the remaining 20% of those flights, about a third were what the BTS termed “National Aviation System” delays.

The U.S. Travel Association, which has been lobbying to limit spending cuts on anything that could have a negative impact on tourism, took a doomsday approach. U.S. Travel estimated that delays attributable to FAA personnel furloughs could cost the country $9.3 billion in economic output and could cut tax revenue by as much as $1.4 billion in the six months ending Oct. 1.

“We remain deeply concerned about predicted air travel delays, and we urge the FAA to insulate critical air traffic control personnel from sequestration-driven furloughs,” U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow said in an April 24 statement. “We also urge Congress to enact a longer-term solution by swiftly passing legislation that ensures the smooth functioning of America’s vital air-travel system.”

(Congress did pass legislation to end the furloughs, the Senate on Thursday and the House on Friday. President Obama said he would sign the bill, but on Friday it was unclear how long it would take to stop the furloughs.)

However, U.S. Travel was basing its warnings on a previous estimate that staffing shortages might cause 6,700 flight delays per day, or about seven times the daily average of flight delays the DOT said last week were staffing-related.

Meanwhile, both Airlines for America (A4A) and the Regional Airline Association filed a request with the DOT on April 19 requesting a moratorium on tarmac delay rules and fines because of sequestration and the resulting staffing shortages. DOT rules implemented in April 2010 prohibit carriers from keeping an airplane on the tarmac for more than three hours without giving the passengers a chance to deplane.

A4A (formerly the Air Transport Association of America) includes 11 of the largest U.S. carriers, including American, Delta and United.

The call for a moratorium on the tarmac-delay rules spurred immediate opposition last week from the Consumer Travel Alliance, which played a significant role in getting the rules enacted.

“Tarmac-delay rules were not implemented only for ad-hoc weather delays,” the group said in a statement this week. “They were implemented to protect passengers from all extraordinary delays, regardless of the reasons.”

While aerospace consultant Scott Hamilton called the number of delays this week “small potatoes,” the real test would have come when summer storms hit the East Coast during peak travel season, wreaking havoc with flight schedules.

“You would think that as the air traffic controllers adjust to the lower staffing levels, they’d become more proficient, but that’s not to suggest that’s the best way to go,” said Hamilton, managing director of Seattle-based Leeham Co. “The system is antiquated and long overdue for upgrading, so the last thing you want to do is reduce staffing in a system that’s inefficient to begin with.”

Follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly.
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