FORT MYERS — Restless but resigned, passengers at Southwest Florida International Airport milled from gate to flight monitors Monday as delays — in some cases, several hours long — started racking up.
“Everybody that reads the paper knows what it is,” said Terry Daly, who was trying to get home through New York’s LaGuardia Airport just before midday.
“It” is the Federal Aviation Administration furloughs that began Sunday for the agency’s 47,000 employees, a result of the so-called sequestration, or the automatic federal spending cuts that kicked in this year after Congress failed to reach a deal to reduce the national deficit.
FAA officials have said they have no choice but to furlough agency employees as a result of budget cuts, including nearly 15,000 air traffic controllers. That resulted in a turbulent day for fliers, especially those going to and coming from the main airports in the Northeast corridor.
In Southwest Florida International Airport’s Concourse D on Monday, airlines told waiting passengers that weather or crew issues delayed flights.
On an in-bound flight from Washington, D.C., however, a pilot was matter-of-fact: the delay to Fort Myers had nothing to do with weather, and everything to do with a “ground stop” in the nation’s capital, where planes were forced to park with passengers on board before taking off after a 90-minute wait.
Around 1 p.m. at RSW, about 60 percent of the 39 flights scheduled to depart Southwest Florida in the next few hours were delayed, from 30 minutes to 90 minutes. One out of every five flights at New York’s LaGuardia International scheduled to take off before noon Monday was delayed 15 minutes or more, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. Last Monday morning, just 2 percent of LaGuardia’s flights were delayed.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott angrily criticized the federal government Monday during a news conference at Tampa International Airport.
He said he’s worried that the furloughs and potential for flight delays will hurt the state’s economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism.
Each FAA employee will lose one day of work every other week. The FAA has said planes will have to take off and land less frequently, so as not to overload the remaining controllers on duty, according to the Associated Press. The controller cuts — a 10 percent staff reduction — went into effect Sunday but the full force wasn’t felt until Monday morning.
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 FAA head Michael P. Huerta in a letter Friday.
The majority of flights affected Monday at RSW seemed to be those between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., although several straggling disuptions were set to continue through the evening. There were two flight cancellations by mid-afternoon.
Though far from chaotic, because the Lee County airport is an origin or destination rather than a hub, the delays piling up throughout the afternoon were symptomatic of a bigger issue for one traveler.
“Our democracy is broken,” said Mike Morris, who along with wife, Kristen, and the couple’s two children waited for updates on their Boston-bound flight around 1 p.m. Monday. It ultimately took off around two hours late.
“They can’t even get the most basic things through Congress,” Morris said, alluding not just to sequestration but gun-control measures.
The country’s airlines and some lawmakers have suggested the White House is causing misery for fliers to put pressure on Republicans in Congress to rescind the cuts. They say the FAA is ignoring other ways to cut its $16 billion budget. Two airline trade associations and the nation’s largest pilots’ union filed a lawsuit Friday asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to halt the furloughs. No hearing has been set.
The FAA also furloughed other critical employees, including airline and airport safety inspectors.
In a letter to the FAA Friday, Delta’s general counsel Ben Hirst asked the agency to reconsider the furloughs, saying it could make the cuts elsewhere and transfer money from “non-safety activities” to support the FAA’s “core mission of efficiently managing the nation’s airspace.”
It remains unclear how flight schedules in Fort Myers and around the country will be affected throughout the week.
Southwest Florida International Airport is staffed with a mix of Lee County Port Authority employees and contract workers, like cleaners. The FAA runs the control tower, and the airlines provide staff from the counter to gate to aircraft. In all, about 4,000 people make the airport run at the peak of the busy season, airport spokeswoman Victoria Moreland said.
Nearly 60 flights were delayed Monday at Southwest Florida International Airport.
They’re possibly a result of the Federal Aviation Administration beginning furloughs Monday for workers, which resulted from mandatory budget cuts for some of its 47,000 FAA employees.
The cuts are part of the so-called sequestration, or the automatic federal spending cuts that kicked in this year after Congress failed to reach a deal to reduce the national deficit.
At the Southwest Florida airport, 38 arrivals and 19 departures were delayed — some for a few minutes but others for more than an hour.
“We haven’t been told delays are attributable to any one cause,” said spokeswoman Vicki Moreland.
She pointed out that the airlines enter the delays information on flights on the airport’s website, http://www.flylcpa.com. The airport’s largest carriers are Delta, followed by AirTran, Southwest JetBlue and others.
“The best thing for travelers, we always recommend, is to make sure that you’re arriving two hours before a domestic, three hours before an international flight,” she said.
“And always check your carrier’s website. That will give out the most updated information.”
American Airlines officials have said that some of the nation’s busiest airports will most likely be affected by the FAA cuts: JFK in New York; Newark; Chicago’s O’Hare; LAX in Los Angeles; and New York’s LaGuardia.