ATLANTA -- As the FAA warns of potentially long delays due to air traffic controller furloughs, airlines have a more grim prediction: system melt down.
On Friday, Airlines for America filed for an injunction, to delay the furloughs by 30 days, but President Nicholas Calio admits it could take nearly a week for a court to hear their case.
In the meantime, labor groups have written a letter to the Whitehouse asking for it to intervene.
Air traffic controller furloughs are scheduled to start on Sunday, with workers being forced to take one day off every two weeks.
The FAA says it studied nearly a dozen airports to determine the impact and predicts passengers at Hartsfield Jackson could experience flight delays of more than three hours in peak traffic periods.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has publicly called the sequestration "dumb," leaving labor groups to believe he's imposing the cuts intentionally to inflict pain and make a political statement.
LaHood denies the allegation, saying he had no choice, if he was to cut $637 million from the FAA's budget as ordered by Congress.
While the FAA says furloughs could delay flights up to 210 minutes at Hartsfield-Jackson, on average it says passengers will only experience an average delay of 11 minutes.
Airlines for America, an industry group representing most of the country's largest airlines, says companies can adjust flight schedules or use bigger planes to reduce passenger inconvenience, but they need more information from the FAA on what loads it can handle at each airport to do it.
Capt. Lee Moak, the President of Air Line Pilots Association, says so far airlines and their employees have been kept in the dark as to what to expect on Sunday and that sustained delays would be catastrophic for the industry.
"It would be like having Hurricane Sandy in the North and Hurricane Katrina in the South at the same time. And you won't be able to recover from that because the system is not set up for that. It's not a light switch," said Moak.
The FAA's predicted maximum delays are more than an hour longer in Atlanta than at any other airport.
A spokesperson says that's because Hartsfield Jackson International Airport uses a special radar to land three planes at a time side by side. Without enough staff to man the radar, for safety, one of those planes will have to circle until a runway is clear. The other reason is that Atlanta's fifth runway is further from the tower and requires extra staffing. So it could be periodically shut down.