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Obama administration warns of grim consequences when cuts kick in

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"Once airlines see the potential impact of these furloughs, we expect that they will change their schedules and cancel flights," LaHood said.

Moreover, he said, the Transportation Department is looking "to likely close" air traffic control towers at 100 airports that have fewer than 150,000 flight operations per year.

"We're talking about places like Boca Raton, Fla.; Joplin, Mo.; Hilton Head, S.C.; and San Marcos, Texas," he said. All in all, nearly two-thirds of the airports are concentrated in three states — California, Florida and Texas.

But in a statement, Airlines for America, an industry group, said the organization, the FAA and airline carriers would be meeting soon to plan for potential cutbacks. "Air transportation is a key driver of our economy, and should not be used as a political football," the statement said.

Paul Rinaldi, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the reductions will not just inconvenience passengers, it will also affect local economies and result in more lost jobs. "The fact that they will not just be furloughing critical FAA personnel but closing air traffic control towers means the system will be even more compromised than anticipated," he added.

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