Travelers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport already are feeling the impact of the federal budget standoff, and they can expect to feel more inside the terminals and on the tarmac as furloughs and staff cuts hit home.
Cuts in overtime for transportation safety officers caused some 200 people to miss flights recently and forced the closure of some airport checkpoints.
The Federal Aviation Administration has told air traffic controllers to expect a 10 percent cut in hours starting this month. A reduced workforce of controllers may delay planes by 30 minutes to ensure safety.
The expected controller cutbacks at the MSP tower, radar room and at the regional air traffic control center in Farmington are likely to be magnified by budget cuts at even larger airports like O’Hare in Chicago.
“We’re going to see some significant delays in and out of Minneapolis,” said Sam Tomlin, a veteran controller at the MSP tower.
The impact of the budget cuts on airport operations isn’t fully known, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration, which operates checkpoints.
“We simply don’t have enough information yet from federal authorities to know exactly what challenges travelers at MSP are likely to face, but we are very concerned,” said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the airport.
Controllers received letters from the FAA detailing the terms of planned furloughs — unpaid days off — beginning this month and continuing through the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. The plan calls for controllers to lose as many as 11 workdays.
At MSP, furloughs will begin April 21. “We’ve just started scheduling the controllers at MSP for their furlough days,” Tomlin said, adding the 33 controllers will lose a day every 80-hour pay period.
The reduced staffing could mean a reduction from 9 or 11 controllers on day and evening shifts to perhaps 7, he said.
While some smaller airports have talked about trimming controllers from midnight to sunrise, Tomlin doesn’t think it’s an option for MSP, where two controllers work the graveyard shift.
“It’s an international airport that’s technically open 24-7,” he said. “We don’t want to get into a situation where you are up there by yourself for eight hours.”
Worst case delays
Controllers and their bosses insist that safety will be maintained but say the price of doing so with fewer eyes will be delays for passengers.
FAA administrator Michael Huerta told the American Bar Association in late February that delays at major airports “will ripple across the country.”
“Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays in some instances of up to 90 minutes during peak hours, because we will have fewer controllers on staff,” Huerta said.
FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said Wednesday that “the administrator’s statement still stands.”
Cory declined to comment on the potential impact of furloughs at MSP. But Tomlin and other controllers said delays of 15 to 30 minutes are likely.
“If you have somebody who is capable of handling 10 airplanes in a sector, we’re not going to have that person now handle 15 planes,” said Roger Mathieu, among 28 assigned to the radar room at MSP.
When weather is ideal, the airport uses three runways to land perhaps 90 planes an hour. Mathieu said the furloughs and a lack of overtime could shut down one of those runways on good days and reduce hourly landings by one third — similar to bad weather conditions.
“That’s the worst case,” he said. “But it definitely could happen.”
Hogan said the FAA has not indicated any plans to discontinue using runways at MSP.
The regional air traffic control facility in Farmington handles traffic high over the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin en route to their destinations. One of its jobs is to make sure planes maintain safe distances as they head on the same flight paths.
The possible closure of a new tower at O’Hare in Chicago could trigger 30-minute delays throughout the Midwest, said Farmington controller Mike Thompson.
“If you’re trying to get to Chicago and you’re in Duluth, you might sit on the ground for quite some time,” Thompson said.
The 10 percent cut in paychecks will amount to thousands of dollars for controllers; those with top seniority can earn $120,000 a year.
Customs and security
At international airports like MSP, wait times to clear Customs might increase by 50 percent, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said last month. It has postponed plans for furloughs while assessing its budget.
The Transportation Security Administration has warned that peak-period wait times of 30 to 40 minutes could eventually double at large airports like MSP “as reductions to overtime and the inability to backfill positions for attrition begin to occur.” The agency says it is developing a plan to deal with the budget problems.
Travelers felt the effects the weekend of March 23-24. “The airport was particularly busy due to spring break travel, and the TSA had eliminated overtime use,” Hogan said. “Lines were much longer than usual, causing more than 200 people at MSP to miss flights.” Since then the agency restored use of some overtime pay, “which has alleviated the problem for now.”
In reaction to the staffing problem, the airport recently closed checkpoint 5 -- the least used -- and limited hours for checkpoint 1 at the main Lindbergh Terminal. It also closed a checkpoint at the Humphrey Terminal when there are limited screeners.
“We don’t yet know how severe local staffing shortages may become,” Hogan said. “We do know there is the potential for it to be significant.”