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The budget standoff – Intensifies – Air Travel Headache

The budget standoff – Intensifies – Air Travel Headache

The budget standoff – Intensifies the Air Travel Headache

There is the prospect of significant effects on air travel.

In recent days, Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, has been warning that the budget cuts would create major disruptions in air travel. He said, for instance, that staff furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration could force the closing of 100 air traffic control centers, and the elimination of overnight shifts at 60 others, in small and midsize markets.

In an interview Monday on MSNBC, Mr. LaHood insisted that his comments were meant as “warning flares” about the effects of threatened cuts.
No one, incidentally, is predicting immediate widespread disruptions if Congress allows those cuts to take effect on Friday.
“While the F.A.A. is using words like shuttered and furloughed, it is unlikely transportation will go into an immediate worst-case scenario,” said Greeley Koch, the executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives.
“But with the economy showing some signs of life, the last thing you would want to do is stop or reverse the process by having the F.A.A. restrict air travel,” he added.

Whatever the immediate impact, those warning flares from Mr. LaHood do illuminate a landscape where business travelers and company travel managers are already feeling uneasy, given the uncertainty about rising prices and continuing capacity cuts that have been reducing airline service in smaller markets.
“The most frustrated folks right now are business travelers, who expect a certain amount of predictability going through the system,” said Geoff Freeman, the chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association. With the possibility of increased waiting times at airport security, where furloughs would also occur, business travelers and corporate managers might cut back on planned trips “in a travel process that’s already pushed to the brink.” He added, “Travel could very easily become the face of the sequester.”

One of the immediate effects of reduced operations at the F.A.A. would probably be felt in regional air service, or the vital connections between midsize and small airports and big city hubs.

The budget standoff is “an irresponsible game of chicken, with no winners,” said Roger Cohen, the president of the Regional Airline Association.
Cutbacks in smaller markets would create “delays and missed connections at the major hubs, such as Chicago O’Hare, Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York’s La Guardia and Newark, and Washington Reagan, each where regional airlines account for more than half the daily flights,” he said.

Airlines would also probably further reduce flights in those feeder markets. Major furloughs in the ranks of air traffic controllers “will undoubtedly have a negative effect on capacity,” according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
“Airlines will have fewer flights, and fewer passengers will fly,” the group said in a statement.
If travel cuts occur, airlines will do everything they can to protect operations at the big hubs where most of their revenue is generated, including for international flights.

Dan Elwell, the senior vice president for safety, security and operations at Airlines for America, the domestic airlines’ trade association, said that it was too early to speculate on how airlines might adjust to possible cutbacks.

Will airlines begin to triage already reduced service in the regional markets to keep the hubs functioning efficiently?”We fully expect to get details,” as the budget showdown approaches, Mr. Elwell said. “We have a team that works full time at the national command center of the F.A.A., and they’re in place for anything that could arise.”

For their part, travel managers who need to plan well ahead are deeply concerned, said Mr. Koch of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives.
“Dire warnings of 90-minute delays at major airports and limited or no services at regional airports are being evaluated by travel management executives around the world today,” he said, noting that if cuts did occur, “international travel headed to the United States will suffer, too.”
Mr. Freeman, at the U.S. Travel Association, predicted that there would be “a lot of frustrated travelers” if the cuts occurred. Frustration with airline service cutbacks, as well as airport security and customs hassles, “is already the biggest issue we face as an industry when it comes to growth,” he said. “The fact is that air travel is already widely considered by many people to be a pain in the fill-in-the-blank.”
Even without the aggravating effects of budget cuts, the costs of air travel are mounting, especially as airlines struggle with fuel prices that are expected to rise to record average levels this year.
In a recent report, the Global Business Travel Association said buyers “expect travel prices to increase substantially in 2013, from 4.6 percent for domestic economy airfare to 8.3 percent for international economy airfare.”

Late last week, the major airlines began a round of price increases for trips booked within seven days of departure

By: jsharkey – nytimes.com

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