Updated at 3:10 p.m. ET
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today warned of the "enormous impact" the looming sequester budget cuts will have on air travel in America, given that his department will have to cut nearly $1 billion from its budget, with more than $600 million coming from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
As the one former Republican congressman in President Obama's cabinet, LaHood put the responsibility squarely on Republicans to step up and work with Democrats to find a way to avert the cuts, slated to kick in on March 1.
"What I'm trying to do is to wake up members of the Congress on the Republican side to the idea that they need to come to the table... so we don't have this kind of calamity in air service in America," he said. "So that we're not just taking a meat axe to one part of FAA."
Cutting $1 billion from the Transportation Department would affect dozens of programs, LaHood said. For instance, the vast majority of the FAA's nearly 47,000 employees will face furloughs, he said -- and the largest number of FAA employees are air traffic controllers.
The Transportation Department is beginning discussions with unions today to close more than 100 air towers with fewer than 150,000 flight operations a year, such as towers in Hilton Head, S.C., and San Marcos, Texas. It's also discussing eliminating overnight shifts in more than 60 towers.
"We're going to reduce the number of controllers, which will reduce their ability to guide planes in and out of airports," LaHood explained.
Flights to major cities like New York and Chicago could experience delays up to 90 minutes during peak hours, he said. Furthermore, with fewer employees on staff to efficiently deal with issues such as runway repairs, there could be even more delays. Customers would likely see these impacts around April 1 -- 30 days after the cuts go into effect.
"These are harmful cuts with real-world consequences that'll cost jobs and hurt our economy," LaHood said.
Following LaHood's remarks, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association released a statement with even more ominous predictions.
"Once towers are closed, the airports they serve may be next," NATCA president Paul Rinaldi said. "Additionally, we believe the delay estimates provided by the FAA are conservative and the potential for disruptions could be much higher. Every one of these actions by the FAA will have an impact far beyond inconveniencing travelers. Local economies will be diminished, military exercises will be cancelled and jobs will be lost. There's no telling how long these effects will be felt because many of these service reductions may not be reversed."
LaHood stressed today that "obviously, as always safety, is our top priority." That said, he added that he expects customers to be very angry.
"Nobody likes a delay. Nobody likes waiting in line," he said. "If we can't get our hamburger within five minutes... you know what happens. They start calling their member of Congress."
Most members of Congress agree the sequester cuts should be averted, but they've been incapable of agreeing how to do so. Democrats want to replace the cuts with a plan that includes some new tax revenue and spending cuts. Republicans, however, say they refuse to raise any new tax revenue, after agreeing to some new revenues during the "fiscal cliff" debate.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said it's "factually incorrect" to say both parties are unwilling to compromise -- Democrats, he pointed out, are willing to make significant spending cuts while the GOP is obstinately against any new tax revenue.
LaHood, who repeatedly pointed out he served as a Republican in Congress for 14 years, said, "I think Republicans need to step up here... I'm telling them to come to the table and start talking to Democrats to figure out how do we solve this."
He said he's talked to about half a dozen Republican congressional offices about the impact the sequester will have on the Transportation Department, and their response is "not good. They get it."
The secretary said it was "nonsense" to suggest he was exaggerating the impact of the sequester.
"It's going to be very painful for the flying public," he said.