By Alwyn Scott and Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, April 18 The top U.S. air safety
regulator said on Thursday his agency expects airports will
handle fewer flights during peak hours this summer because of
furloughs at control towers.
However, airlines have not told the agency this will mean
fewer overall flights or less revenue for them, Federal Aviation
Administration chief Michael Huerta said.
Airlines are still trying to understand the impact of
furloughs among air traffic controllers, Huerta told reporters.
The FAA plans to cut control-tower staffing by 10 percent at
Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and other busy airports starting
on Sunday because of mandatory budget reductions required under
Huerta, speaking after a Senate hearing, said the FAA is in
regular conversation with airlines in an effort to understand
what the effect of the furloughs will be.
He said FAA "modeling" of the potential effects is specific
to individual airports. But in general, "if we have reduced
controller hours, what we would expect to see is during peak
periods a reduction of arrival rates", he said.
"So one of the things we're trying to understand is how that
impacts the system overall," he said, without elaborating.
His remarks were the clearest statement yet of the potential
effect on airports and airlines. He has previously said that "if
sequestration means fewer flights can be safely accommodated in
the (national air space), then there will be fewer flights".
Air-traffic controller staffing has drawn attention in
recent weeks after the FAA said it would close control towers at
149 small airports across the country, starting on June 15.
Congress has asked for safety studies of those plans, but the
FAA has so far not provided them.
In a sharp exchange during the hearing, Senator Jerry Moran,
a Kansas Republican, asked Huerta for copies of the studies that
were conducted on each of the 149 airports.
Last month, Representative Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania
Republican, and Senator John Thune, a Republican from South
Dakota, asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for studies
the FAA conducted to determine that closing the smaller towers
Last week, a larger group of lawmakers told Huerta and
LaHood that they opposed the planned closures, and said the FAA
had not determined the effect of the move on safety or airport
"It is deeply troubling that the agency seems intent on
proceeding with the closure of key air traffic control assets
absent adequate safety data and study," they said in a letter to
LaHood and Huerta.
Huerta has said all but one of the towers slated for closure
already shut for significant parts of the day, and have
procedures for flights to land without an air traffic controller
on duty. The FAA chose airports that handle fewer than 150,000
flights a year and fewer than 10,000 commercial flights a year.
The furlough issue, which is separate from the closures,
could potentially have a larger impact since it affects 47,000
air traffic controllers in facilities that guide flights into
and out of busy hubs and across the nation's airspace.
The furloughs are expected to save $200 million in the
current fiscal year, which ends in September, while the tower
closures are expected to save $25 million, Huerta said. The
agency is required to cut $637 million from its nearly $16
billion budget for the current fiscal year.