How 10 Air Traffic Controllers Likely Ended the Government Shutdown

Feb 7, 2019

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

In an unprecedented situation, more than 800,000 federal workers spent 35 days employed but unpaid between December 2018 and January 2019. Newly released information suggests that it may have taken as few as 10 employees calling out sick on Jan. 25 to get those paychecks trickling back in.

Six air traffic controllers in Leesburg, Virginia, and four air traffic controllers in Jacksonville, Florida, took sick leave that day, causing what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) called at the time “a slight increase in sick leave.” The Leesburg-based Washington center handles much of the en-route air traffic, and the Jacksonville facility also covers “a lot of airspace on the Northeast corridor,” said Paul Rinaldi, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

The Northeast region of the United States is one of the world’s most trafficked airspaces, with 20% of all travelers passing through the region on a daily basis.

“Ten people causing significant air travel problems sounds perfectly reasonable, particularly when you consider the towers they work in handling travel in some of the busiest airspace,” said Peter Goelz, CNN’s aviation analyst who formerly served as the managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Those missing air traffic controllers led New York’s La Guardia Airport (LGA) to order a ground stop on Jan. 25, which temporarily halted all air traffic. The crucial staffing shortage also led to delays at other major hubs across the United States including Newark, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Ground stops typically create a nationwide domino effect that create bottlenecks and delays at airports, which rely on precise timing to shuttle passengers, baggage and cargo from connecting flights on extremely regimented schedules. Residual effects of the ground stop and delays were felt throughout the remainder of the day, even after LGA runways were back up and running. By 1pm that day, LGA was ranked the world’s worst airport for delays, according to FlightRadar24

“You can’t mess with a system that is so integral to the United States,” said Trish Gilbert, executive vice president of the NATCA.

Even on fully staffed days of operation, air traffic control is one of the most specialized, high-intensity career paths. Air traffic controllers ensure that all aircraft maintain safe distances from each other, particularly during crucial takeoff and landing times. They also are responsible for tracking every plane taxiing around the grounds of the airport, as well as monitoring foreign objects that may stray in the airspace.

Due to the grueling nature of the job, industry regulations dictate that air traffic controllers cannot work more than 10 hours in a given day, or more than six days a week. Furthermore adding to the strained workforce limitations, air traffic controllers are at a 30-year staffing low. Add in a few unexpected sick leaves, and the entire nation’s commercial air system screeches to a stop.

“The air traffic control system is already stretched to its limits because of an aging controller workforce not being replaced in numbers that allows us to keep the system expanding,” Goelz said. “So, if you add to that inadequate staffing on a shift, you’re going to see a substantial ripple effect.”

Meanwhile, air traffic controllers themselves are considered essential employees, meaning they had to work during the government shutdown. However, their support staff are considered non-essential, and were furloughed during the shutdown. So the already high-stress job became infinitely more important — and more exhausting — to execute correctly.

“You cannot continue to operate a system this complex for this long without the support structure of the people that are furloughed,” Gilbert said during the shutdown. “We are already short-staffed. Now you have added the stress to air traffic controllers and their personal circumstances, and they’re not sleeping at night. We are concerned that they are not fit for duty.”

What was the significance of the Jan. 25 date? There is no evidence that the call-out was planned in any way, and the NATCA does not support coordinated actions that can disrupt national airspace. But Jan. 25 was the day federal employees were due to — and did not — receive their second full paycheck since the shutdown began. And one day prior on Jan. 24, the US Office of Personnel Management released new guidelines allowing essential personnel to take personal leave during the government shutdown.

The 10 absent air traffic controllers resulted in an immediate breaking point for the White House, but Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staffing shortages have also heavily contributed to passenger-side delays in many US airports. A number of TSA officers reported working additional hours or calling in sick in order to work side jobs for companies such as Lyft and Uber, which allowed them to earn necessary income while paychecks were on hold. 

Despite the fact that everything is up and running again for the time being, the impact of the shutdown has taken a long-term toll on the nation in many ways. The government shutdown is only on temporary hiatus, due to resume on Feb. 15 if Congress cannot reach a new consensus. And air traffic controllers are under more stress than ever.

“Many controllers have reached the breaking point of exhaustion, stress and worry caused by this shutdown,” Rinaldi said. “They feel undervalued, demoralized, and I’m using the word traumatized, they are traumatized. They went through a traumatic event, and we don’t ever need to do that again to our national airspace system.”

Featured photo by Getty Images.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of card membership. Plus, earn a $200 statement credit after your first Delta purchase within the first three months. Offer ends 7/28/21.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles after spending $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months and a $200 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months. Offer expires 7/28/2021.
  • Limited Time Offer: Plus, get a 0% intro APR on purchases for 12 months from the date of account opening, then a variable 15.74%-24.74%. Offer expires 7/28/2021.
  • Accelerate your path to Medallion Status, with Status Boost®. Plus, in 2021 you can earn even more bonus Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) to help you reach Medallion Status.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Intro APR on Purchases
0% on purchases for 12 months
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
N/A
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.