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FAA warns of 3.5 hour flight delays this summer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Flight delays of up to 3-1/2 hours are expected to occur at some U.S. airports this summer because of furloughs of air-traffic controllers, the top U.S. aviation regulator said on Thursday.

The estimate from the Federal Aviation Administration puts in sharper focus the potential impact of the agency's decision to furlough 10 percent of its staff starting Sunday as it struggles to meet budget cuts required under so-called sequestration.

The average delay would be much shorter than the 3-1/2 hours, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a briefing to reporters, without specifying a figure.

Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood underscored their frustration about having to furlough 47,000 staff, close smaller air traffic control towers and inconvenience the flying public.

Both men appeared at a hastily arranged news conference at Transportation Department headquarters, vowing to ensure the continued safety of U.S. air travel. "Safety will never be compromised in anything we do," LaHood told reporters.

"We have looked far and wide at everything to make the reductions. We've looked at every contract. We've looked at every way possible to make reductions, but we cannot avoid furloughs, " LaHood said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shala-Esa; Editing by Alwyn Scott, Gary Hill and Sofina Mirza-Reid)