The FAA plans to begin furloughing air traffic controllers on Sunday, which the agency predicts could cause extensive ground delays ranging from 50 minutes to two hours and a reduction in flight arrivals of 30 to 40 percent at certain airports.
The furloughs could result in one out of every three airline passengers across the country suffering flight delays or cancellations, airline industry officials said at a Friday news conference.
Sunday is a light air travel day, but by Monday the effects of the furloughs should start to "snowball," creating an air travel mess the equivalent of having a "Hurricane Sandy in the North and Hurricane Katrina in the South," said Lee Moak, president of the pilots union.
Federal officials have said they have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 of the FAA's employees, including nearly 15,000 controllers, if they hope to cut $637 million from the agency's budget by the end of September, as required under automatic, across-the-board spending cuts imposed by Congress.
Each employee will lose one day of work every other week, which will amount to a 10 percent reduction in available controller work hours to staff air traffic facilities on any given day.
As a result, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines says passengers should be ready to allow extra time, especially when flying to or from certain cities, including Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Newark, San Diego and San Francisco.
Alaska Airlines officials say they do not intend to pre-cancel any flights. The carrier is recommending that customers arrive at the airport two hours before departure for domestic flights and three hours before departure for international flights.
Connection time between flights, especially when arriving from Mexico or Canada, may be challenging as travelers will need to clear customs and immigration. Travelers booking future flights are encouraged to allow adequate connection times in case air traffic delays continue.
"While we hope the impact of these FAA furloughs does not cause massive flight delays across the country, it is with an abundance of care for our customers that we caution them - especially travelers flying to or from (cities) where we have several daily flights," Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said.
Minicucci said the airline has contingency plans in place to divert flights and shuttle passengers to and from nearby airports should widespread delays occur. The airline will allow passengers who miss flights to rebook their travel when space is available, with no increase in fare or change fee.
While the FAA says ground delays are expected to impact six airports Alaska Airlines serves, rolling delays could affect the carrier's entire 95-city operation and cause crew scheduling issues that would force the cancellation of dozens of flights.
Alaska Airlines operates more than 800 flights a day including an average of:
38 daily roundtrip flights to/from Los Angeles
20 daily roundtrip flights to/from San Diego
16 daily roundtrip flights to/from San Francisco
5 daily roundtrip flights to/from Chicago
2 daily roundtrip flights to/from Newark
1 daily roundtrip flight to/from Fort Lauderdale