Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport emerged relatively unscathed after a week of delays at some other major U.S. airports, avoiding the significant disruptions that prompted emergency Congressional action Friday.
Air traffic controller furloughs triggered by sequestration budget cuts held the potential for serious problems at the world’s busiest airport. The Federal Aviation Administration had said before the furloughs took effect last Sunday that it expected average flight delays in Atlanta of about 11 minutes, with a maximum delay of 3 1/2 hours hours.
But the worst-case scenario didn’t pan out due to an array of factors that underlie the constant hum of departures and arrivals at Hartsfield-Jackson, including:
- The airport’s efficient design, which enables thousands of takeoffs and landings every day with few hitches
- Relatively mild weather that requires fewer controllers to keep the skies safe
- Controllers working overtime to devote attention to the huge, round-the-clock operation at Hartsfield-Jackson
- Pre-emtpive moves by the airport’s biggest tenant, Delta Air Lines, to thin its schedules
For six days, air traffic controller staffing was reduced under a system calling for them to take one unpaid day off every two weeks as part of the across-the board budget cuts known as sequestration. The bulk of the delays and cancellations through the week hit New York, Chicago and elsewhere — where the staff cuts compounded the effects of bad weather and congested air space with multiple commercial airports in those metro areas.
On Friday Congress moved to curtail the furloughs by giving the FAA power to shift funds despite the automatic budget cuts.
A key factor that helps Atlanta’s airport run efficiently — so much so that it sometimes doesn’t feel like it could be the world’s busiest airport — is that it is well-designed to operate thousands of flights a day.
“Atlanta airport is set up to run the most traffic in the entire world,” said Victor Santore, Southern region vice president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and an Atlanta air traffic controller. “You could not have a better design for an airport to run a huge amount of traffic, so the design in and of itself helps to mitigate delays all the time, whether it’s fully staffed or partly staffed.”
Hartsfield-Jackson has been named the world’s most efficient airport for nine of the past 10 years by the Air Transport Research Society, which cites its productivity, efficiency and low costs.
Traveler Elliott Koehler at Hartsfield-Jackson on Friday said his flight from Louisville, Ky. was on time and went smoothly. He was connecting to a flight to Fort Myers, which was slightly delayed, but not enough to concern him.
“It seems pretty normal” Koehler said. “It doesn’t seem very chaotic at all.”
Last week’s good weather also played a role because when skies are clear, air traffic control facilities need fewer controllers in operation. In bad weather, “it takes more people,” because aircraft can’t see each other, according to Santore.
In that situation, “They need to bring additional radar controllers in … to ensure the spacing of each aircraft going into the same runway stays intact, that the spacing side-by-side stays intact, and in the event of a go-around, they ensure that the go-around happens safely.”
After the first day of furloughs, the air traffic controllers union said controllers were staying after their shifts at key facilities such as in Atlanta to minimize delays.
Santore said the FAA gave priority to Atlanta’s approach control facility, allowing the use of overtime and extra workers from other areas to keep Hartsfield-Jackson traffic moving.
Meanwhile, the rate of arrivals in Atlanta was a bit lower than it could have been, due to a ripple effect from other airports with heavy delays, such as those in Chicago, Charlotte and in California, Santore said.
The FAA said anywhere from 863 to 1,200 flights nationwide were delayed by furloughs in the first several weekdays of the staffing cuts.
For example, 863 flights were delayed Wednesday by staffing cuts in New York, Washington, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Potomac, Dallas, Southern California and Detroit facilities, according to the FAA. That’s compared with more than 2,132 other delays due to weather and other factors. The agency said there were 1,025 delays due to furloughs on Tuesday, and 1,200 on Monday.
Atlanta was not named in the FAA’s missives as a location with “staffing challenges” that led to delays.
Some flights — particularly those on small regional jets — were more affected than others by the delays. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, the biggest operator at Hartsfield-Jackson, said it canceled flights on smaller Delta Connection jets to reduce the delays, rebooking passengers on other flights.
On Monday, for example, Delta canceled about 90 flights operated by its Delta Connection partners, and said 99 percent of those customers were rebooked within a couple of hours on larger planes.
Though the controller furlough issue is set to be resolved, other effects of sequestration on airlines may not be immediately erased by the action in Congress last week. Delta earlier this month reported lower last-minute bookings due to sequestration, and said last week it has seen a decline in bookings from the defense business due to cuts in government spending, with revenues down about 15 percent to 20 percent.
“There’s no doubt it’s having some impact,” Delta president Ed Bastian told analysts last week.