WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. air travel system faces widespread disruptions if automatic government spending cuts go into effect next week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Friday, as the administration kept up a steady drum beat of pressure on congressional lawmakers to delay the cuts.
LaHood painted a dismal picture of delayed and canceled flights, shuttered control towers and airports, and irate air travelers from coast to coast if across-the-board spending cuts are allowed to take place under the process known as sequestration.
"Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco and others could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours," LaHood told reporters at the White House. "Delays in these major airports will ripple across the country."
Some $85 billion in cuts are due to be applied across government programs on March 1 unless lawmakers act. The cuts were designed to be so onerous they would force a compromise over a broader deficit reduction package, but this deal has proven elusive.
President Barack Obama has waged an aggressive campaign to urge Congress to postpone the cuts for several months to let the White House and congressional Republicans hammer out a deficit-cutting deal. The president has given speeches around the country stressing the economic damage the sequestration cuts would cause if not blunted.
Republicans, who have argued that government over-spending is hurting the U.S. economy, have so far rebuffed the president's request for a delay. A number of Republican members of Congress have said that while the cuts may be painful, they could be a necessary jolt to wean the nation from excessive government spending.
While Obama spoke by phone with congressional Republican leaders about the looming cuts on Thursday, there has been relatively little contact between the two sides as the deadline approaches.
Some critics have questioned whether the administration's predictions of job losses and service hiccups in critical areas may be overstated and aimed at inflaming public opinion.
Aviation consultant George Hamlin said LaHood's comments "sound like scaremongering."
"It certainly makes anyone observing this process somewhat suspicious of political content when we only hear about things that will upset many people," Hamlin said. "It's a good idea to ask some questions here in terms of has sequestration been applied selectively, and if so, why."
However, LaHood and other administration officials have repeatedly denied that they have any discretion in applying the cuts or that they are exaggerating their impact.
"The idea that we're just doing this to create some kind of a horrific scare tactic is nonsense," LaHood said. "We are required to cut a billion dollars. And if more than half of our employees are at the FAA ... there has to be some impact."
A former Republican U.S. representative from Illinois, LaHood acknowledged that the administration hoped his warnings might sway is fellow party members.
"I would describe my presence here with one word: Republican," he said. "They're hoping that maybe I can influence some of the people in my own party."
LaHood said sequestration would lead to $1 billion in spending cuts at the Transportation Department, of which more than $600 million would be to the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees U.S. air travel.
The "vast majority" the FAA's approximately 47,000 employees face furloughs of at least a day per pay period until the end of September, he said.
The government would also close more than 100 air traffic control towers in places with light traffic like Boca Raton, Florida; Joplin, Missouri; and Hilton Head, South Carolina, LaHood said.
Obama himself said on Friday he does not believe it is inevitable that the cuts will take place. If they do, however, they would slow U.S. economic growth, but would likely not disrupt world financial markers, he said at an event with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
LaHood said his department would begin sending furlough notices to employees on March 1, meaning the effects of the staffing cutbacks would not be felt until the beginning of April.
The national air traffic controllers union urged Congress to avoid the cuts, saying the U.S. air system can ill afford the loss of FAA staff.
"Travelers and users of the national airspace system, from commercial passengers to businesses of all sizes, to the military, will feel the impact of the cuts throughout the spring and summer," National Air Traffic Controllers Association spokesman Doug Church said.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Jeff Mason, Karen Jacobs and Doug Palmer; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Vicki Allen)