Federal cuts slow travel at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2013 - 6:05 AM

More flight delays and longer security lines are predicted for Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as a result of the federal budget impasse.

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Travelers are feeling delays at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and more are expected due to the federal budget impasse.

Photo: Jim Gehrz , Star Tribune

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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.

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