The nation's airlines asked a federal court on Friday to stop the imminent furlough of air traffic controllers, saying the cuts could delay 6,700 flights daily with passengers waiting up to four hours in some cases.
The Federal Aviation Administration is beginning the furloughs on Sunday as part of government-wide spending cuts that took effect in March due to inaction by Congress on a plan to cut the deficit.
The FAA said the impact of the furloughs could be felt as early as Monday. Furloughs are hitting other agencies as well.
While both sides agree furloughs would lead to substantial flight delays, the FAA and the airlines disagree on whether they are necessary.
The FAA says it must furlough all 47,000 of its employees, including 15,000 air traffic controllers, as part of $637 million in planned spending cuts by September 30, the end of the government's fiscal year. The FAA's annual budget is $16 billion.
"We cannot avoid furloughs," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said this week.
But the airlines said that step is "based on a false legal premise -- that Congress has required the precise cuts that (the FAA has) ordered. However, the Budget Control Act does nothing of the sort," the airlines argued in court papers.
The agency could cut elsewhere and spare the traveling public the acute pain it will feel when controllers stay home, the carriers said.
The motion was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia by Airlines for America, the trade association representing major airlines, the Regional Airline Association, and the Air Line Pilots Association, a group representing unionized pilots.
They are challenging the FAA, which oversees air traffic operations and aviation safety in the United States, and its parent agency, the Transportation Department.
The airlines said it would push for congressional legislation deeming air controllers "essential" employees, which would exempt them from furloughs.
It has asked the Obama administration for a 30-day delay of its furlough action so it could pursue the matter with Congress.
"We continue to believe that the FAA has other means to reach a 10 percent budget reduction than to impact the traveling public," A4A President Nick Calio said in a statement.
"When a company needs to make a 10 percent budget reduction, the answer is not to make it is so inefficient that no one wants to do business with it anymore. That's essentially what the FAA is proposing," he said.
A coalition of aviation associations also has called on the White House to give the FAA funding flexibility.
"While other federal agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Customs and Border Protection (CPB), Meat Inspectors (USDA) and Bureau of Prisons (DOJ), have taken steps to avoid furloughing their essential operational personnel, the FAA believes they have not been given the same flexibility," the group wrote in a letter to White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.