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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.

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