FAA Stops, Then Delays Flights Out of LaGuardia as Controllers Call out Sick due to the Shutdown

Jan 25, 2019

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The Federal Aviation Administration delayed most flights out of and into New York’s LaGuardia Airport Friday morning due to a shortage of air traffic controllers, who have been calling out sick as they go unpaid because of the shutdown of the US government.

The short-staffing had caused initially a ground stop on Friday, meaning no flights into or out of LGA were taking off. Flights were being held at their airport of origin to mitigate traffic. The ground stop was cancelled later in the morning, as the FAA began metering traffic, or delaying the pace of takeoffs and landings.

There were delays at other East Coast airports, including Newark (EWR), Philadelphia (PHL) and Washington DC (DCA). Those airports are also metering traffic due to the lack of ATC workers during the shutdown, according to a delay chart on the FAA’s website, causing delays throughout the region.

At 11am ET, flights out of LaGuardia are being delayed about 40 minutes, according to flight tracking site FlightRadar24, with passengers being held on planes at gates and on the tarmac. At Newark, flights are about 30 minutes behind schedule, while flights out of Philadelphia are delayed nearly 45 minutes.

“We have experienced a slight increase in sick leave at two facilities,” an FAA spokesperson told TPG in an emailed statement Friday morning. “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.”

On Friday, passengers were complaining about the long delays.

“I’m on a Southwest flight (2296) to Denver that was supposed to take off at 8:55 a.m. from LaGuardia, and more than an hour later we’re still waiting on the runway,” Bloomberg News reporter Daniel Taub wrote. “Supposed to be leaving any minute. We were told by the pilot this was due to airport staffing.” Taub’s flight eventually took off an hour and 16 minutes late.

Air Traffic Controllers across the US are some of the 800,000 federal workers deemed “essential” and therefore compelled to work without pay during the shutdown of the federal government. Some ATC workers have said they want to call in sick to seek other, paying employment.

“Some [controllers] are saying if it goes for a longer period of time, they might have to write a letter to management requesting to be furloughed to go seek other employment,” Vito Gioia, an air traffic controller at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, told TPG in an interview. “Morale is very low in facilities.”

Many ATC operations were already short-staffed going into the shutdown, and now some controllers say they have been forced to work 10-hour days six days a week to keep towers staffed through the shutdown. Controllers have told TPG that the shutdown has caused distractions in control towers across the nation.

“This is definitely distracting in the tower,” Dion Johnson, an air traffic controller of 11 years based at MBS International Airport in Freeland, Michigan, said in an email. “It is pretty much the topic of conversation.”

Featured image by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images.

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