New England travelers may face flight disruptions, and there could be less oversight of planes, if massive federal budget cuts start happening Friday as expected.
In anticipation of funding reductions, the Federal Aviation Administration is preparing to reduce expenditures by $600 million, from early April through the end of September, by furloughing air traffic controllers, closing more than 100 air traffic control facilities around the country, and eliminating midnight shifts at more than 60 locations.
With fewer controllers in the towers, the pace of arrivals and departures will have to be slowed, officials said. The FAA plans to have the majority of its nearly 47,000 employees take one or two unpaid days off during every two-week pay period, which could also affect maintenance for radio communications and radar systems. Airplane equipment and airline crews could arrive behind schedule as well, leading to more flight delays.
The agency is also considering closing control towers at 13 airports throughout New England — including Worcester Regional Airport — and eliminating overnight shifts in Bangor and Manchester, N.H.
Many of the towers that would be designated to shut down overnight currently handle so few flights during that time that those shifts could be eliminated now under FAA guidelines, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. Senior congressional Republicans have said the FAA is overstating the impact on travelers and could make cuts without controller furloughs, according to Bloomberg News, noting the number of domestic flights is down 27 percent since 2000.
Boston’s Logan International Airport is gearing up to implement the operations plan it normally uses during bad weather to deal with potential schedule disruptions. Planes that normally arrive at peak hours — early morning, noon, and early evening — might be spread throughout the day, said Edward Freni, director of aviation for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan.
Without enough air traffic controllers to guide planes in and out, aircraft could get backed up at the gates, potentially stranding them out on the tarmac. To avoid that scenario, Massport may send buses onto the tarmac to pick up arriving passengers and unload them at the currently unused Amelia Earhart building.
The Transportation Security Administration may also furlough agents, potentially backing up security lines, and Massport plans to deploy its team of 50 public service representatives to help travelers get to their flights on time.
The agency is advising passengers to contact airlines about possible delays before coming to the airport, and recommends they allow more time if need be.
“It’s just going to be a mess if it turns out the way it could turn out,” Freni said. “This is kind of like Armageddon here.”
Flights into some airports, including those in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco — which have configurations requiring more controllers in some cases — could be delayed by as much as 90 minutes, the FAA said. The agency said the impact wouldn’t be as dramatic at less busy airports, including Logan, but did not provide time estimates.
The overnight air traffic controller shift at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport tower could be scrapped if the budget cuts are enacted. That would affect the handful of cargo and passenger flights that arrive after midnight and before 6 a.m.
Flights can still take off and land without someone manning the tower — many of the nation’s airports do not have on-site air traffic controllers — but it means one less layer of oversight, said Manchester-Boston Regional Airport spokesman Tom Malafronte.
The airport would also have to install equipment, including a system that allows pilots to adjust the intensity of the airfield lights from their planes. Pilots would communicate via radio broadcasts with other aircraft in the area and operations crews that might be plowing snow or fixing lights on the airfield.
Normally, the air traffic controller at Manchester would give clearance for takeoffs and landings, as well as coordinate with airports’ operations crews and monitor the radar screen for other aircraft.
“In the interest of safety, it is our preference to have an air traffic controller in the tower 24 hours a day,” Malafronte said. “It’s a critical piece.”
Worcester Regional Airport, which has an air traffic controller in the tower from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day, could go completely unmanned. As in Manchester, pilots about to take off or land would identify their aircraft, position, and intended runway on the general airport radio frequency heard by pilots as well as airport operations personnel. Drivers operating vehicles on the airfield would be required to make similar broadcasts.
Airlines referred questions about schedule changes to the trade group Airlines for America. Spokeswoman Jean Medina declined to speculate on how the FAA’s proposed cuts might affect air travel.
“We’re working with the FAA on ways that we can minimize the impact to passengers and to shippers,” Medina said.