As one of the country’s busiest airline hubs, San Francisco International Airport is particularly prone to the 90-minute delays that federal officials have been warning about as a result of the so-called budget sequester.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has specifically said airports in San Francisco, Chicago and New York could see major delays due to the budget cuts implemented last week as part of the political impasse in Washington, D.C.
The $1.2 trillion reduction to the federal budget could force air traffic controllers to take work furloughs, allowing fewer planes to take off and land at airports. Those furloughs are tentatively scheduled for next month.
SFO spokesman Doug Yakel said the hub hasn’t yet experienced any delays beyond the normal setbacks attributed to bad weather. He said there isn’t anything specific about SFO that could heighten the effects of the automatic budget cuts, but that it was probably mentioned by LaHood because it is one of the most-used airports in the country.
Yakel said other airports like Chicago’s O’Hare have two air traffic control towers, one of which might have to be shut down as a result of the scheduled furloughs, significantly impacting scheduled flights.
SFO is still assessing the potential impacts of the federal budget cuts, Yakel said, which affect the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection.
“We’re still a little unclear about the local effects of the furlough process,” Yakel said. “It could affect overnight flights or it might require airlines to change their scheduling. There are a number of different possibilities that could shake out as a result of the cuts.”
Joe D’Alessandro, president of the San Francisco Travel Association, said SFO also could have been cited specifically by LaHood because it is a gateway for international travelers. International travel is expected to experience the greatest delays because of looming cuts to customs services.
“We’re definitely very concerned about the sequester,” D’Alessandro said. “It’s unfortunate, because this is a time when we’re really trying to market San Francisco to the rest of the world.”
While the airport typically monitors federal budget developments, it is also working on addressing customer service concerns at the hub. Fearful of lengthy lines at security and boarding zones, the airport has deployed extra workers to assist passengers.
Those employees will help stand in line for travelers who have to use the bathroom, and there will be extra seating options available at international terminals, which could be especially congested because of the expected cutbacks in border protection services, Yakel said.
SFO is the nation’s ninth-busiest airport, according the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Even without the effects of the sequester, travel through the airport has historically been beset by delays. Arriving flights at the hub have an on-time performance rate of just 70 percent, which ranks 28th in the nation.
Calls and emails to the Department of Transportation asking for clarification on LaHood’s comments were not returned Monday.