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Few impacts in Alaska as FAA furloughs delay flights around US

Ben Anderson
While thousands of flights around the country are delayed as a result of budget cutting and furloughing of air traffic controllers, the impacts in Alaska so far have been limited. Loren Holmes photo

Though flights at major airports around the nation have been delayed thanks to federal sequestration and the resulting furloughing of air traffic controllers, there has been little impact thus far in Alaska, according to the manager of the state’s busiest airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been sending out daily press releases announcing the number of flights delayed nationally as a result of the cuts, which require the agency to eliminate a significant portion of its operating costs as a result of across-the-board cuts that went into effect March 1. Part of that cost-cutting involves furloughing employees, including air traffic controllers. CNN reports that as many as 1,500 controllers -- one-tenth the overall controller staff -- could be off on any given day.

On Monday, the furloughs were responsible for 1,200 delays around the country. On Tuesday, that number was 1,025, according to the FAA. Most of the delays are coming at metropolitan hubs like Chicago and Tampa, the agency reported.

But in Alaska, so far, the impacts have been few. The nature of the furloughs -- all FAA employees must take at least one day off every two weeks -- means that smaller airports are less likely to be missing multiple critical employees on any given day.

“The bottom line is, so far we have not heard about any impact here locally,” said John Parrott, manager of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, on Wednesday morning.

“I believe they have furloughed some employees,” Parrott said of the Anchorage tower. “Normally, when you say ‘furloughed’, it means the employee doesn’t come to work for an extended period of time. But in this case, it’s more like one or two days a month.”

Parrott added that any delays in Alaska would likely be the result of other delays involving airplanes arriving from outside of the state. Numerous requests to the FAA for more information about Alaska-based furloughs and delays went unanswered as of press time Wednesday.

But there may be other impacts beyond the state’s major airports in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks -- where control towers direct incoming and outgoing air traffic -- that will likely go unnoticed by many Alaskans.

The state’s Flight Service Stations (FSS), remote facilities that provide weather reports and can file pilots’ flight plans around the state, are also subject to the FAA furloughs. Most of the country’s FSS services were privatized in 2005, but due to Alaska’s unusual size and aviation-centric nature, the FAA maintained control of the program in the Last Frontier. As a result, some of the state’s 14 satellite FSS facilities will also see shutdowns.

“The three parent Flight Service facilities of Fairbanks, Kenai and Juneau will continue to maintain operations 7 days a week, 24 hours a day,” a letter to airmen said on Friday. “Most smaller, or satellite facilities will be largely unaffected as well. However, some facilities will see shortened hours of service and occasional closures to accommodate the furlough requirements.”

That included vague references to shutdowns in communities like Sitka, where the facility will close for 16 unspecified days between June 2 and Sept. 30, to Palmer, which will see shortened hours of operation on Saturdays only. See the full list in the attached letter.

Fortunately, the FSS system has redundancy built in, and one of the three parent facilities will fill in for gaps in service from the satellite stations. What wasn’t yet clear, however, was how the facilities would handle the increased workloads from other stations.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers were already getting fed up with the delays around the country, accusing the agency of essentially strongarming Congress by furloughing air traffic controllers and making the public suffer rather than make deeper cuts elsewhere that wouldn't affect the flying public. Two leaders of the U.S. Senate Transportation Committee -- on which Alaska Sen. Mark Begich sits -- sent a letter on Tuesday to acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta demanding answers to the reasoning behind furloughing air traffic controllers.

"We all realize that we need to make cuts, but the FAA and most federal agencies can do them smart with a scalpel, not a political hammer like the furloughs going on nationwide," Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said on her Facebook page Tuesday. "Instead of looking at the $541 million the FAA spends on consultants, the $179 million they spend on travel and $134 million they spend on office supplies, Americans are facing headline-grabbing lines at the airports."

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com