NEW YORK — Flight delays piled up all across the country Monday as thousands of air traffic controllers were forced to take an unpaid day off because of federal budget cuts, providing the most visible impact yet of Congress and the White House’s failure to agree on a long-term deficit-reduction plan.
The Federal Aviation Administration kept planes on the ground because there weren’t enough controllers to monitor busy air corridors. Cascading delays at some of the nation’s busiest airports held up many flights into New York, Baltimore and Washington by more than two hours.
At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, about 100 of the 460 daily departures arrived at their destinations late, with about three-fourths of the delays coming after 1 p.m., according to flightstats.com. Of the late flights, 22 were more than one hour behind schedule. The worst delay came on Delta Flight 470 to Memphis, Tenn., which was scheduled to land five hours and 24 minutes late though it left the gate in Las Vegas only two minutes late.
In the morning, the East Coast delays were so bad that passengers on several Washington-New York shuttle flights could have reached their destination faster by taking the train.
Nearly a third of flights at New York’s LaGuardia airport scheduled to take off before 3 p.m. were delayed 15 minutes or more, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. On April 15 , 6 percent of LaGuardia’s flights were delayed.
The situation was similar at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, in Newark, N.J., and in Philadelphia with roughly 20 percent of flights delayed.
Monday is typically one of the busiest days at airports with many high-paying business travelers departing for a week on the road. The FAA’s controller cuts — a 10 percent reduction of its staff — went into effect Sunday. The full force was not felt until Monday morning.
Travel writer Tim Leffel had just boarded a US Airways plane from Charlotte, N.C., to Tampa, when the flight crew had an announcement.
“They said: ‘The weather’s fine, but there aren’t enough air traffic controllers,’” Leffel said. Passengers were asked to head back into the terminal. “People were just kind of rolling their eyes.”
His flight landed one hour and 13 minutes late.
There is no way for passengers to tell in advance which airport or flights will experience delays.
FAA officials have said they have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 agency employees — including nearly 15,000 controllers — because the agency’s budget is dominated by salaries. Each employee will lose one day of work every other week. The FAA has said that planes will have to take off and land less frequently, so as not to overload the remaining controllers on duty.
Critics have said the FAA could reduce its budget in other spots that wouldn’t delay travelers.
“There’s a lot finger-pointing going on, but the simple truth is that it is Congress’ job to fix this,” said Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat and member of the House aviation panel. “Flight delays are just the latest example of how the sequester is damaging the economy and hurting families across the country.”
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 the head of the FAA, Michael P. Huerta, in a letter Friday.
Deborah Seymour was one of the first fliers to face the headaches. She was supposed to fly Sunday night from Los Angeles to Tucson, Ariz. First her 9:55 p.m. flight was delayed for four hours. Then at 2 a.m., Southwest Airlines canceled it.
“It’s pretty discouraging that Congress can’t get it together, and now it’s reached the point that we can’t get on an airplane and fly,” Seymour said.
On some routes Monday, it was faster to take ground transportation. The 8 a.m. US Airways shuttle from Washington to New York pushed back from the gate six minutes early but didn’t take off until almost 10 a.m.
The plane landed at 10:48 a.m. — more than two and a half hours late.
If travelers instead took Amtrak’s 8 a.m. Acela Express train from Washington, they arrived in New York at 10:42 a.m. — four minutes early.
Normally, there are 10 air traffic controllers at a regional facility handling arrivals for Los Angeles International Airport. On Sunday night, there were just seven, according to Mike Foote, a local union president with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. A low layer of clouds late compounded the situation.
In such weather, two controllers do nothing but watch planes as they descend below 15,000 feet to ensure they don’t veer off course.
That allows 68 to 70 planes to land each hour. Because of the furloughs, there were no controllers to do that Sunday, dropping the arrival rate to 42 planes an hour, Foote said.
United Airlines said there were “alarming pockets” of delays and warned that if a solution isn’t found, the problem could “affect air travel reliability for our customers.”
Review-Journal writer Tim O’Reiley contributed to this report.