airport-travelersHaving one of the world’s largest airports as your home base has its upsides and its downsides. On the upside, the vast majority of the world is only a direct flight away. On the downside, the vast majority of the world will join you in using that airport. Which can lead to epic delays.

Most of the time, I only see the upside of O’Hare International Airport, my home airport and the world’s fifth busiest as measured by passenger traffic (behind Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International, Beijing Capital International, London Heathrow, and Tokyo International).

The place pulses with life. People scurry to their gates or to collect their bags, dragging sleepy tots by the hand while scanning the boards in the fervent hope their flight will leave on time.

The Downsides of Busy Airports

But in a place as closely scheduled as O’Hare, more than a few flakes of snow, a little mechanical trouble or a computer crash can wreak havoc with travelers all over the world.

So it is with trepidation that any traveler, but particularly those of us who will venture into the sky via one of the world’s busiest airports, should view the across-the-board budget cuts that this week are reducing the number of air traffic controllers on duty. The controllers–the people who manage traffic in the sky–are the latest victims of the U.S. government’s inability to come to a budget compromise, leading to cuts on all federal spending without regard for the damage it could do.

The Air Line Pilots Association has sued to stop the air traffic control cuts, but that suit won’t even get a hearing until sometime this week. By then, fliers may have already borne the burden of the cuts.

Reports from Sunday and Monday indicate that delays were non-existent in Chicago and not all that bad anywhere else. But a report from the Chicago Sun-Times says that bigger delays could be in store because more controllers will be on furlough later this week. Only a couple of O’Hare air traffic controllers were on furlough Monday, five were scheduled off Tuesday, eight are due off Wednesday and by Friday, 14 — including three management personnel — will be off if the cuts are not rescinded, the Sun-Times reports.

So if you’re planning to fly this week, confirm your flight time before you head to the airport. If your flight is delayed, consider using that extra time to write your Congressmembers and ask them to do their job better.

Not All Fliers Created Equal

In case you’re tempted to think that your representatives will suffer the same fate you do–long waits and canceled flights–think again. The last time I flew out of Washington DC at 5pm on a Friday afternoon, I arrived at Reagan National to find an airport in chaos. Bad weather in Chicago had led to flight cancellations and delays across the country.

As a result, our plane was downsized, leaving several of us without seat assignments. As an American Airlines very frequent flier, I still had a seat on the plane. Until the Congresswoman showed up, that is. She elbowed her way to the front of the line, conferred urgently with the gate attendant….and was ushered onto the plane. My seat? No longer available.