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“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.”
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504