Nationwide about 15,000 air traffic controllers are being forced to take days off without pay as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) deals with mandatory budget cuts under sequestration.
The budget cuts and furloughs could soon mean delays for passengers who use the Fort Smith Regional Airport to fly to bigger hubs such as Atlanta or Dallas for connecting flights, according to John Bratcher, with the Air Traffic Controllers Association.
"We could potentially see significant delays in the Fort Smith area," Bratcher said. "Also, in Northwest Arkansas, at the regional airport there could be significant delays happening as well because most of these flights go on to the nation's busiest airports."
"Connecting flights in the hubs may be delayed and then those aircraft that return from those hubs they subsequently may be delayed as well in the larger markets," John Parker, the director at the Fort Smith Regional Airport, said.
The delays are already affecting the travel plans of some in the River Valley.
"I think it's going to dampen the economy," David McDonald, who lives in the area, said. "People are not going to take their vacations like they normally do by air. And with gas prices, I don't think they'll be driving either."
Bratcher explained the furloughs mean fewer controllers will be directing traffic in busy air corridors, which he says is crucial to keeping flights on time across the country.
"A controller is a choreographer of sorts where you may have 15 or 20 airplanes that you're trying to sequence down in a safe and efficient manner both in and out of airports through observation," Bratcher said. "It's something that can't be put under the control of the pilot to do while he's in the air."
The airlines are warning as many as 30 percent of flights may be delayed. The Air Traffic Controllers' Union is taking the FAA to court, trying to end the furloughs.