Flights were delayed by up to two hours across the country Monday, the first weekday that the nation's air traffic control system operated with 10 percent fewer controllers.
Pilots, gate agents and others were quick to blame furloughs caused by mandatory across-the-board budget cuts, but the Federal Aviation Administration said it was too soon to assign blame.
The agency said in a statement, however, that "travelers can expect to see a wide range of delays that will change throughout the day depending on staffing and weather-related issues," and that there were special "staffing challenges" in New York, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Jacksonville. At those centers, controllers had to space airplanes farther apart so that they would not have to take on more planes than they could manage at a time. The FAA said it would not have a firm count of how many delays were the result of air traffic control staffing until today.
Delays piled up throughout Monday as the airlines, including US Airways, JetBlue and Delta, were forced to cancel some flights because of cutbacks. Shuttle flights between Washington and New York were running 60 to 90 minutes late. But Southwest Airlines said it did not see any unusual delays.
One expert on air traffic, Daniel A. Baker, a spokesman for FlightAware of Houston, said that it was always difficult to parse out what had caused delays, but that some appeared to be coming from staffing problems, and that they were in the range of 60 to 70 minutes. "It can ruin your afternoon, but it's not what people had pictured," he said, adding that many feared worse.
"We have 36 hours of experience in this situation," he said. "It's a little bit too early to tell, candidly," how much the short-staffing of air traffic control was to blame.
At airports, Monday is typically one of the busiest days, when many high-paying business travelers depart for a week on the road. The FAA's controller cuts went into effect Sunday. The full force was not felt until Monday morning.
Travel writer Tim Leffel had just boarded a US Airways plane from Charlotte, N.C., to Tampa, when the flight crew had an announcement.
"They said: 'The weather's fine, but there aren't enough air traffic controllers,' " Leffel said. Passengers were asked to head back into the terminal. "People were just kind of rolling their eyes."
His flight landed one hour and 13 minutes late.
One thing working in fliers' favor Monday was relatively good weather at most major airports.
However, the furloughs could continue through September, raising the risk of a turbulent summer travel season. And the shortage of controllers could exacerbate weather problems.
There's no way for passengers to tell in advance which airport or flights will experience delays. The FAA calculated that the furloughs would affect up to 6,700 flights a day. There are 30,000 to 35,000 commercial flights a day.
FAA officials have said they have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 agency employees — including nearly 15,000 controllers — because the agency's budget is dominated by salaries. Each employee will lose one day of work every other week. The FAA has said that planes will have to take off and land less frequently, so as not to overload the remaining controllers on duty.
Critics have said the FAA could reduce its budget in other spots that wouldn't delay travelers.
"There's a lot finger-pointing going on, but the simple truth is that it is Congress' job to fix this," said Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat and member of the House aviation panel. "Flight delays are just the latest example of how the sequester is damaging the economy and hurting families across the country."
Some travel groups have warned that the disruptions could hurt the economy.
"If these disruptions unfold as predicted, business travelers will stay home, severely impacting not only the travel industry but the economy overall," the Global Business Travel Association warned the head of the FAA in a letter Friday.
Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was included in this report.