WASHINGTON -- Airlines and airports across the country are preparing for across-the-board federal budget cuts due to hit next week as if they were a hurricane, although with even less certainty about how many flights might be canceled and passengers stranded. But the federal government is warning about delays that could begin in March, as the first cuts take effect, and reduced takeoffs and slower security lines that could worsen in April with furloughs.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has told Congress that most of the Federal Aviation Administration's 47,000 employees would face a day of furlough per two-week pay period, or on average a cut of 10 percent of the work force on any given day. That could mean 1,000 fewer air traffic controllers out of the 15,000 who are now on duty each day.
To handle such a major staffing shortage but still maintain safety, federal aviation officials said they would accept fewer airplanes into the system, the same tactic they use in bad weather. That means that in places where airplanes normally follow one another with a six- or seven-mile gap, there might be a 10- to 20-mile gap. As a result, passenagers may sit on tarmacs and endure delays as they wait for planes to push back from the gate.
"It's going to be like perpetual bad weather," said Kevin Mitchell, the chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. "You're going to have to look at this as if you're going out knowing there's a storm."
There could also be longer security lines at airports because of anticipated furloughs of Transportation Security Administration workers. In addition, deplaning from international flights could be slower because Customs and Border Protection agents are expected to work fewer hours.
When this would begin in earnest is not yet clear. Government rules require that employees be given 30 days' notice, which cannot be given until March 1. But overtime budgets, and contractor and part-time employees, could be cut sooner.
In some areas, like New York, there could be problems even before furloughs if overtime budgets are cut.
So far the F.A.A. is saying very little specifically about what it would do, although the National Air Traffic Controllers Association is preparing a study correlating levels of furloughs to reductions in the ability to handle traffic.
"Everyone is frustrated with the lack of specific information," said Deborah McElroy, the president of the Airports Council International – North America. "Airports are looking at their contingency plans, but the difficulty is, I don't know what I'm planning for."
Many aviation executives were reluctant to be quoted by name for fear of appearing to take sides in the dispute in Congress, but many expressed frustration. An executive of a major airline who is assigned to the New York area pointed out that the problem approached as the price of gasoline was once again nearing $4 a gallon, making any form of travel less attractive. Reviving a neologism from the heart of the recent recession, he said, "Staycation may become the byword of the summer."
The cuts, known as a sequester, "will require indiscriminate spending reductions," Mr. LaHood said in a letter Feb. 11 to Barbara Mikulski, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.