The impact of controller furloughs

WASHINGTON, D.C. — There is a growing concern here that furloughing of air traffic controllers by the FAA is a political move by the Obama administration to put the spotlight on sequestration and get Congress to take action to eliminate it. Members of Congress and most aviation groups, however, don’t seem to be buying that.

Most of the impact is being felt by the airlines, which is gaining heavy media coverage.

Members of Congress are ratcheting up their displeasure. Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) said: “If for some reason the president or the FAA doesn’t believe they have the flexibility to address this issue, they should ask Congress for the flexibility they need.”

Members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure issued a statement charging the FAA with choosing a “very public and painful way to implement sequestration.” The statement declared the FAA has stated it has flexibility to reduce costs in other ways.

In the Senate, John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va), chairman of the powerful committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and Ranking Member John Thune (R-SD), said they have received only broad responses to past inquiries about implementation plans for sequester.

In a letter sent to both FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the elected officials noted that  at a recent hearing on the subject, Huerta failed to provide detailed information about the projected effects of furloughing to the traveling public.

Representative Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Committee, said the FAA’s management of sequestration is quickly going from bad to worse. He said 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.

He added that perhaps what is the most troubling is that the FAA has known about sequestration for almost two years and gave Congress and the airline industry less than a week’s notice about its implementation plans.

The FAA is implementing furloughs at the same rate at small airports as at major centers. For example, the House Committee notes that Waterloo Regional Airport in Iowa, which has 79 operations a day, is being treated the same as Chicago Air Route Traffic Center, which has about 8,200 operations per day.

Officials at the Aircraft Owners and Pilot Association (AOPA) report little reaction from its members, but members of the National Business Aviation Association are being affected much like the airlines.

AOPA encourages pilots to share their experiences — delays or no delays on their flight, along with the type and location of the flight — with the association to help form a better picture of the impact on GA. Pilots can send a short note via email to AOPA’s Pilot Information Center or respond via Facebook and Twitter (@AOPA) using the hashtag #ATCDelays.

Much of the NBAA membership operate jet aircraft and tend to fly mostly instrument flight rules. They monitor air traffic similar to the airlines. NBAA reports delays have been running as much as two hours in the New York-Washington area and more than an hour in other locations.

Both GA associations are looking ahead to June 15, the date FAA has said it will close 149 contract airport towers. The combination of furloughs and closures could have an adverse effect on all general aviation.


  1. says

    Flight following is at the discretion of ATC, and it always has been. As a VFR pilot, it is not guaranteed to you. It is based on the controllers workload. There have been times in my flying years that I have been denied flight following because the controller was too busy. I have even been dropped by ATC at times, mostly not though.

    I will say that the furlough situation came to mind last weekend while flying through Los Angeles airspace, using flight following, and I was dropped in an area where this has never happened to me. It could have been because of the furlough or simply a coincidence. The furlough issues appears to be gone for now.

    • Mike says

      I understand FF is at the controller’s discretion, always has been, and is not guaranteed.

      Your 2nd paragraph is what I was saying. I also had never been dropped before in that area, and it obviously was because the controller was by himself (his words) and therefore overloaded.

  2. Mike says

    One aspect I haven’t seen mentioned …. the impact on Flight Following:

    The other day I was flying a trip of about 150nm VFR using Flight Following. Our local controller handed me off to another approach controller shortly before I would be passing over that airspace. It soon became obvious that approach controller was quite busy with a fair amount of traffic, and apparently handling the tower frequency also. After a few minutes I heard him tell another aircraft to “Standby, I’m by myself here.” Shortly after that he abruptly cancelled my Flight Following without handing me off (as is normal) to approach control of my destination airport.
    This has never happened to me before, have never had Flight Following, which I use fairly often, just dropped. I certainly understand he was very busy and am not upset with this controller, but it also seems to me that safety was somewhat compromised considering how much traffic was in the area.
    And then on the news I heard Ray LaHood, Transportation Secretary, comment that safety was not being compromised by the furloughs. I disagree with that comment.

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