After months of inside-the-Beltway drama, the impact of sequestration cutbacks moved to center-stage America on Monday, as the aviation system was slowed by the furlough of 1,500 air traffic controllers.
With about 10 percent of the controllers who direct 23,000 planes a day scheduled to be off daily until October, industry and government officials forecast that the effect would snowball as the nation enters peak travel season.
Short on staff and besieged by brisk winds at the three big New York-area airports, controllers fell behind by mid-morning Monday and never caught up. The Newark, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports reported delays of one to three hours.
Meanwhile Monday, a policy change set to take effect this week that would have let passengers carry small knives, bats and other sports equipment onto airliners will be delayed, federal officials said. The delay is necessary to accommodate feedback from an advisory panel made up of aviation industry, consumer, and law enforcement officials, the Transportation Security Administration said in a brief statement. The statement said the delay is temporary, but gave no indication how long it might be.
TSA chief John Pistole proposed the policy change last month, saying it would free up the agency to concentrate on protecting against greater threats. TSA screeners confiscate about 2,000 small folding knives from passengers every day.
The proposal drew opposition from flight attendant unions and federal air marshals, who said the knives can be dangerous in the hands of the wrong passengers. Some airlines and lawmakers also urged TSA to reconsider its position.
The delay announced by TSA doesn't go far enough, a coalition of unions representing 90,000 flight attendants nationwide said Monday. "All knives should be banned from planes permanently," it said in a statement.
The controller furloughs had no impact on flights at Pittsburgh International Airport or Allegheny County Airport, said JoAnn Jenny, an Allegheny County Airport Authority spokeswoman. A smattering of delays was reported at midday, some or all perhaps weather-related. Winds caused delays at LaGuardia, and thundershowers stalled some flights in and out of Florida.
In Detroit, Metro Airport customers had not experienced any direct delays at that facility because of controller furloughs, public affairs director Michael Conway said, but that didn't mean the federal cuts hadn't impacted those customers' travel plans. "There's some major airports that are being impacted, so we can't really say our customers are not being impacted, but they're not being impacted because of delays here, as of yet," he said.
Most flights from major Washington, D.C.-area airports also ran close to on time, but some headed to New York faced long delays on the ground. When New York's three mega-airports fall behind schedule, that often has a ripple effect as far as the West Coast.
By mid-afternoon Monday, flights into the US Airways hub in Charlotte, N.C., were late in arriving; by evening, airports in Miami and Los Angeles reported lengthy delays because of controller shortages. Meanwhile, an ice storm at Denver's airport further gummed up the system.
As TV crews panned across anxious, angry passengers in New York terminals, the debate revived in Washington over whether controller furloughs announced last week were necessary or a White House ploy to dramatize sequestration's effects.
"Our aviation system should not be used as a pawn in budget debate," said Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. "The livelihood of our economy is dependent on air commerce, and the financial strength of our airlines and the people they employ are at risk."
He predicted that delays would spread in weeks ahead if the Federal Aviation Administration presses on with a plan to recoup $200 million of the $637 million it must cut to meet sequestration goals this fiscal year.
After the furlough plan was presented last week, House Republicans insisted that FAA cuts should be made elsewhere, and the airlines went to court in an attempt to block them. The Obama administration brushed off suggestions that air travel had become "a political football," but crowds of delayed passengers undoubtedly made better television than announcements that federal office workers would have to take unpaid days off.
The FAA has estimated that a third of passengers will face delays during the furloughs, with as many as 6,700 flights arriving late at more than a dozen major airports each day. On the worst travel day of 2012, when severe weather crippled the system, about 3,000 flights were delayed.
The longest delays were expected at major hubs, including the three serving New York, two in Chicago and those in Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco.
"In airports across the country, millions of Americans will get their first taste of the pain of sequestration," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., said on the Senate floor.
Post-Gazette staff writer Jon Schmitz, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and Associated Press contributed.