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The Capitol Building in Washington, DC. In the coming week, they could hold the key to trip delay to millions of travelers around the world.Political junkies have been watching the situation leading up to the potential “sequester” these past weeks. I’ve been keeping an idle ear to it, as it’s something out of my control. That is, until now.

Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appeared at the White House Press Briefing on Friday to address how the sequester would affect travelers coming through the United States. If the sequester comes to life, anyone who gets on a commercial flight could be in serious trouble – and for a change, it wouldn’t be any airline’s fault.

“Sequester will have a very serious impact on the transportation services that are critical to the traveling public and to the nation’s economy,” Secretary LaHood announced at the press briefing. This lead into his outline of what could potentially happen if the sequester happens:

  • The Transportation Department would need to cut over $1 billion from their budget. Of those cuts, $600 million would come from the Federal Aviation Administration. This would force the furlough of every FAA employee one day per pay period.
  • Due to a cut in active air traffic controllers, trip delay in flights to major airports (such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, etc.) during peak hours would extend to up to 90 minutes. This could have a ripple effect throughout the national airspace, and cause delays for all other airports.
  • Preventative maintenance and quick repair of runway equipment may not be immediately possible (as it is now), further delaying flights as a result of damaged or worn equipment.
  • Once airlines see the potential impact of layoffs and delays as a result of equipment, a permanent impact on schedules are possible.

In addition to these issues, the reduced staffing would force the closure of air traffic control towers at many small airports throughout the United States, and cutting overnight staffing at control towers for 60 locations. The places that could see potential closure in the event of a sequester include: Hilton Head, South Carolina, Boca Raton, Florida, and San Marcos, Texas.

While many of these closures and furloughs will delay a lot of general aviation pilots and other aircraft, the impact that it will have on travelers cannot be denied. Much like the fiscal cliff situation at the beginning of the year, there’s now a renewed urgency to avoid this situation. But what if trip delay becomes even more of a normality than it is now? How do we prepare for more trip cancellation than ever? In the event we cross into the sequester, here are things that you can do to make sure you are cleared for takeoff:

  • Check-in 24 hours ahead of schedule
    By checking in early for your flight, you will be able to get the most recent information for your travels: anticipated take off, anticipated landing, and connection information. Many carriers also alert you to the type of aircraft you will be traveling on and the amenities on board. All legacy carriers offer this ability now – so there’s little reason not to at least go to the website, plug in your information, and see what you’re in for the next day. If you’re flying Southwest and want to get a decent seat, I’d upgrade this to “requirement” status.
  • Make sure your flight is going where you want – and know how to get back
    Right now, there is little change in how flights are going to and coming back from places. However, that might change if the sequester forces changes to air traffic (and ultimately creates trip delays) in the coming days. If you worry that your flight may be affected, then check your itinerary first online – as it may be updated with potentially different plans. If there’s no new information there, it’s acceptable to call the airlines and request more information to work through alternate changes.
  • Brace yourself for trip delay with more time and alternate plans
    If the sequester happens, you will probably find yourself with a bigger trip delay than before. And If that trip delay turns into a cancellation…who knows what could happen, right?
    In order to ensure you get to where you’re going, plan for additional time around your travels knowing that the growing trip delay issue could get bigger.  Add an additional day of travel if you can to both ends. If you know you need to be somewhere urgently (or you need to get home urgently), know all the schedules that could get you there and be prepared to suggest them if there’s the potential of a trip delay.

Nobody likes the threat of a trip delay – but it’s turning into a potential problem now that politics are stepping into the travel arena. Are you anticipating being affected by the sequester? Or do you think they will resolve it before it becomes a problem? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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