Aviation officials warned Thursday of longer lines and delayed flights at Charlotte Douglas International Airport as federal spending cuts take effect.
The “sequester” – $85 billion worth of mandatory spending cuts from all federal agencies – will force many federal workers at the Charlotte Douglas International to take 11 to 14 days of unpaid furloughs before Sept. 30, assistant aviation director Herbert Judon said.
That includes air traffic controllers and Customs and Border Protection agents. The 650 Transportation Security Administration agents who screen passengers at airport checkpoints likely won’t face furloughs, Judon told the Airport Advisory Committee. But open TSA management positions are being frozen, he said.
The sequestration cuts will also result in closing smaller, regional airport control towers, such as the one at Concord Regional Airport. As air traffic slows around the country, and passengers deal with longer delays getting through security at other airports, the effects will reach Charlotte, aviation director Jerry Orr said.
“It’s a national system. Delays anywhere in that system trickle through here,” said Orr. Still, Orr said he doesn’t believe the airport will see massive delays. Travelers are most likely to see the impact during the busiest travel times.
“We don’t think there will be any significant effect on the airport,” said Orr. “Yes, we’ll see delays, (but) not a lot.”
Government-mandated furloughs won’t start until early next month.
Here’s what sequestration means for travelers and the three agencies:
Air traffic controllers
Twenty-one air traffic controllers work at Charlotte Douglas during a fully-staffed shift. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said controllers will take one day of unpaid furloughs every two weeks. That will reduce staffing by four air traffic controllers.
The controllers will also have to handle more traffic from the regional airports, such as Concord, whose control towers are being defunded and shut down.
Judon said air traffic controllers will be able to provide the same level of service. “They’ve assure us we won’t see any degrading of service locally,” he said.
But NATCA said they may have to reduce the airport’s peak arrival rate from 96 to 70 flights an hour to deal with the cuts. That could cause delays at Charlotte Douglas, which typically had more than 1,450 takeoffs and landings per day in January.
Customs and border agents
Travelers arriving from overseas could face delays when re-entering the U.S. Customs and border protection agents, like the air traffic controllers, will face unpaid furloughs. “There may be some increased wait times and reduced hours of service,” said Judon.
That would presumably increase during peak travel times. Customs and Border Protection has said wait times at major airports will increase by up to 50 percent, with wait times of four hours possible during peak times at busy airports.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said last week that CBP had reduced overtime for agents at major airports as a way to start cutting costs, and had seen lines double in length in some cases.
TSA agents screen passengers, other airport employees and flight crew members at airport checkpoints. Judon said the agency doesn’t expect to furlough any of its front-line staff at Charlotte Douglas, and is still hiring for open positions.
However, the TSA hasn’t clarified whether it will be able to continue using overtime to pay for increased staffing at checkpoints during busy travel times. Many agents at Charlotte Douglas are part-time, and work shifts during the travel rush times, such as Monday morning or holidays, to process passengers more quickly.
“They haven’t gotten a clear picture on how they’ll use their overtime,” Judon said. That could mean travelers see longer lines during the airport’s busiest days.