QUEENS, N.Y. ― The Federal Aviation Administration is halting some flights to New York’s LaGuardia Airport due to staffing issues with air traffic controllers.
A “slight increase in sick leave at two air traffic control facilities” in New York and Florida led the FAA to “adjust operations to a safe rate,” the administration said in a statement.
It wasn’t immediately clear which flights would be affected at LaGuardia. An NBC reporter said flights are still taking off and landing but that “the rate of them has slowed.”
The FAA’s flight delay site reports arriving flights to LaGuardia are being delayed by an average of one and a half hours.
President Donald Trump reportedly has been briefed on the situation.
Despite frantic online alerts about the groundings, the scene was quiet and orderly at LaGuardia late Friday morning, and there were nearly as many reporters arriving to cover the expected commotion as there were frustrated travelers still outside the security checkpoint. One uniformed airport employee, who declined to give his name, said most of the passengers impacted by the groundings were already through security.
Still, some travelers were frustrated due to flight delays and other complications to their travel plans.
Lana Tanca and three relatives, all from Miami, sat near the baggage claim in Terminal B of the airport. They texted another family member who said her flight from Jacksonville, Florida, was stalled in Washington, D.C.
“She said they had to divert it, then they deplaned, then they put her back on the flight,” Tanca said. “Now they’re apparently going to divert her again.”
Elected officials and union leaders have argued that the ongoing government shutdown puts flight passengers at risk. Many air traffic controllers and other staff members aren’t being paid, leading some to resign.
It’s not yet clear whether the increase in sick leave has anything to do with a worker strike, but unions representing all aviation workers on Wednesday called for action amid the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
“It is unprecedented,” said the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the Air Line Pilots Association and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “This is already the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States and there is no end in sight. 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.”
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association released a statement Friday in which it hinted that the sick days and staffing issues may be tied to a broader coordinated attempt to strike ― without actually using the word “strike.” The statement read, in part:
NATCA does not condone or endorse any federal employees participating in or endorsing a coordinated activity that negatively effects the capacity of the National Airspace System or other activities that undermine the professional image and reputation of the men and women we represent.
Air traffic controllers take their responsibility to protect the safety of the flying public at all costs very seriously. Nothing else matters except safety.
With that said, in the past few weeks, we have warned about what could happen as a result of the prolonged shutdown. Many controllers have reached the breaking point of exhaustion, stress, and worry caused by this shutdown. Each hour that goes by that the shutdown continues makes the situation worse.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told New York magazine on Friday that flight attendants could also walk out to show solidarity with government employees affected by the shutdown.
“We’re mobilizing immediately,” she said.
Separately, in a press release, she called for the shutdown to “end immediately.”
“Do we have your attention now, [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell? All lawmakers?” she said. “Open the government and then get back to the business of democracy to discuss whatever issue you so choose. This shutdown must end immediately. Our country’s entire economy is on the line.”
The controllers union warned Wednesday that a shortage of controllers, who have been working without pay for more than a month, was creating risks to the air-travel system.
“Staffing in our air traffic control facilities is already at a 30-year low and controllers are only able to maintain the system’s efficiency and capacity by working overtime, including 10-hour days and 6-day workweeks at many of our nation’s busiest facilities,” it said.
“Somehow because we’re federal employees we’re supposed to have money set aside to deal with political calamities, and that’s just unconscionable to me.”
Luke Drake, a regional vice president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union, said his people are also feeling the stresses add up, and that he isn’t surprised at the increased number of sick air traffic controller workers.
“I assume it has primarily to do with the stress with not only the nature of their work but having to do all of that while not being paid,” Drake said of workers calling out. “I’m not surprised given we’re now at our second lost pay period that the stresses are increasing.”
Drake said it hasn’t helped that administration officials in the White House ― including Trump ― have downplayed workers not being paid.
“One of the really infuriating comments I’ve seen is the expectation that our people should have reserve accounts for the government being shut down as if that’s a normal thing now,” he said. “Somehow because we’re federal employees we’re supposed to have money set aside to deal with political calamities, and that’s just unconscionable to me.”