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When automatic federal spending cuts loomed in March, federal officials warned the furloughs of air traffic controllers would snarl the air travel system and leave passengers waiting in terminals for hours. Three days after furloughs began, staffing-related delays have been minimal, but representatives of the air traffic controllers union say that could all change as the summer travel season picks up.
"During significant weather activity, when we are [usually] able to recover once flights are cancelled... we won't be able to recover because it will start building up day after day," said Trish Gilbert, the executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in Washington.
The flight tracking site Flight Aware showed few extended delays on Monday. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority reported no sequestration-related problems at either Dulles International or Reagan National Airport.
The FAA was forced to implement furloughs of 15,000 air traffic controllers. A controller can expect to be furloughed for 11 days through the end of the fiscal year, forcing fewer planes to land and take off at the major hub airports.
"The system is all tied together and what happens at one airport could variable affect many other airports and therefore create capacity issues and delays," said Gilbert.
Frequent flier Jeff Nelson was relaxing in Reagan's main terminal on Monday afternoon waiting for his return flight to Sacramento. Wasting away hours waiting out flight delays is part of the traveling routine, he said, but the furloughs have introduced a wild card for the coming summer season.
"There are always problems," Nelson said "This is a little more in the mix of potential problems."
The air traffic controllers are asking Congress to give the FAA administrator the authority to move money around the agency's budget and put an end to staffing shortages in the air towers.
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