The Obama administration has issued its strongest warning so far that that the looming sequestration budget cuts will cause "calamity" for air travellers.
Transportation secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman, became the latest senior voice to express concern about the $85bn sequestration cuts that are due to start March 1. He made a surprise appearance at Friday's White House press briefing and called for both parties to work together to head off the cuts.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) faces $600m in cuts that will lead to the closure of close dozens of control towers and the elimination of overnight shifts at others, he said.
LaHood said the vast majority of the FAA's nearly 47,000 employees would be furloughed for at least one day per pay period until the end of the fiscal year.
"This is very painful for us, because it involves our employees. But it's going to be very painful for the flying public," LaHood told reporters. "This is going to have an enormous impact." He predicted delays of up to 90 minutes following the cuts.
LaHood warned Washington that politicians phones would be "ringing off the hook" once angry constituents start experiencing the chaos he expects to ensue. "Why does this have to happen?" he said.
The cuts to the FAA would be a "meat-axe" that will a very serious impact on the transportation services, LaHood said. "We believe that it's not possible to do the same schedules with less people," said LaHood.
The transport secretary said he has been talking to Republicans colleagues about the sequester impact in order to prepare them for a barrage of complaints. "I'm telling them to come to the table and start talking to Democrats about how we solve this," he said.
"I suggest my colleagues on the Republican side go see Lincoln," LaHood said, noting that in the Spielberg film, people on both sides talked to each other.
President Barack Obama has spent the week warning about the dangers of the sequester. "This is not an abstraction. People will lose their jobs," he said in a speech Tuesday.
On Thursday he called Republican House speaker John Boehner senator Mitch McConnell, but the two sides appear to be at loggerheads with only days to go before the cuts come into effect.
The cuts to defense and social programmes are set to hit almost every part of the US government from national parks to the military. They were put in place after 2011's row over raising the budget ceiling in an attempt to force lawmakers to find a less onerous ways to reduce deficits and stabilize the national debt. Both sides failed to find an alternative, however, leaving the cuts to kick in this year.
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