At least four major airports suffered flight delays Friday because of an increase in air traffic control employees calling in sick amid the government shutdown, which ended Friday afternoon after 35 days thanks to a short-term deal.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s flight delay map had showed significant departure delays at Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey, Friday morning. Lesser delays also showed at New York LaGuardia earlier in the day. By early afternoon, “staffing” delays had dissipated at Philadelphia but had popped up in Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport.
The FAA listed “staffing” as the cause and had issued a “traffic management” initiative to slow down the rates of departures. Typically, that “metering” effort helps controllers space out planes to keep the pace of either arrivals or departures from exceeding their capacity.
The FAA confirmed it had initiated procedures to adjust flights because of an increase in sick calls by controllers.
“We have experienced a slight increase in sick leave at two facilities,” a spokesman for the FAA said in a statement to USA TODAY. “We’ve mitigated the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic, and increasing spacing between aircraft when needed. The results have been minimal impacts to efficiency while maintaining consistent levels of safety in the national airspace system. The public can monitor air traffic at fly.faa.gov and they should check with airline carriers for more information.”
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At one point Friday morning, the FAA site had listed departure delays averaging more than an hour at both Newark and Philadelphia. The Philadelphia delays had dissipated later in the morning, according to the FAA site. Just before noon ET, LaGuardia remained a trouble spot, with delays on arriving flights averaging nearly 90 minutes. Atlanta’s delays, which popped up after noon, were more than an hour. Delays persisted at Newark as of 12:55 p.m. ET, though the cause was no longer staffing but “wind,” according to the FAA.
Flyers could face sporadic delays at those airports, and possibly others, throughout the day.
The delays were caused by an insufficient number of air traffic controllers in two regional facilities near Washington, D.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., according to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center. Those facilities help coordinate the thousands of flights that fly through an area of the East Coast that stretches from Florida to Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The news of staffing issues comes two days after leaders of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union which represents the controllers, held a press conference on the steps of Capitol Hill arguing that the now-ended shutdown was harming the safety of air travel in the United States.
Air traffic controllers have been working without pay since Dec. 22. They have received paychecks during that time, but each check read $0.00, said Bill Striffler, the union’s representative at Newark airport.
“We have a growing concern for the safety and security of our members, our airlines and the traveling public due to the government shutdown,” the union said in a statement issued prior to the end of the shutdown. “In our risk averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break.”
Press secretary Sarah Sanders said President Trump has been briefed on the airport delays.
“The President has been briefed and we are monitoring the ongoing delays at some airports. We are in regular contact with officials at the Department of Transportation and the FAA.”
The travel troubles come a day after a trio of airline CEOs sounded alarms that the shutdown had reached a tipping point. The CEOs of American, Southwest and JetBlue specifically warned about the potential for flights to be delayed because a shortage of air traffic controllers would require more spacing between flights.
One major airline, Air Canada, issued a rebooking waiver for customers headed to Newark and LaGuardia because of “Air Traffic Control restrictions.” So far, none of the biggest U.S. airlines were waiving fees, though they said they were monitoring the situation.
“We haven’t experienced significant impacts to our operation or schedule at this point, but continue to monitor and are working closely with the FAA,” American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said to USA TODAY before the shutdown-ending deal was announced. “Our goal is to minimize disruptions for our customers and our team members taking care of our customers. In this spirit, we urge that the federal government be re-opened before shutdown impacts begin to escalate.”
JetBlue Airways passengers traveling Friday may experience delays or longer-than-normal flight times due to air traffic control staffing shortages, spokesman Philip Stewart said. Customers should check their flight status at jetblue.com or on the airline’s mobile app, he said.
Delta Air Lines said about 200 flights at LaGuardia and other airports in the Northeast were delayed Friday morning due to the FAA’s ground delay program.
“Delta is working to reaccomodate customers to their destinations and encourages customers traveling on Friday to check delta.com or the Fly Delta App for their current flight status,” spokesman Drake Castañeda said.
Labor officials also began to weigh in Friday on the staffing-related issues with controllers, saying that they had already sounded the alarm for potential harm to aviation from the shutdown.
“This is exactly what AFA and other aviation unions have been warning would happen,” Sara Nelson, president of Association of Flight Attendants that represents about 50,000 attendants at numerous airlines, said in a statement.
“The aviation system depends on the safety professionals who make it run,” she added. “They have been doing unbelievably heroic work even as they are betrayed by the government that employs them. They are fatigued, worried, and distracted – but they won’t risk our safety. So the planes will stay on the ground. This is anything but a sick out – it is only about our safety and the air traffic controllers’ absolute commitment to it.”
Contributing: David Jackson and Dawn Gilbertson of USA TODAY and Christopher Maag of The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey.