An 11 a.m. image of the FAA's airport delay map, showing significant delays at multiple airports. (FAA, AVI screenshot.)
UPDATE: Shortly after this story's publication, President Trump and Congress announced a three-week agreement to temporarily restart the government. It remains to be seen if that will translate to long-term, full funding.
Major American airports experienced significant delays Friday morning as a shortage of air traffic controllers led to temporary ground halts and delays as a result of the ongoing government shutdown.
Shortly before 10 a.m. EST, a ground stop was ordered at New York's La Guardia airport. It was soon removed, but flight delays throughout the U.S. national airspace system, focused in the New York area, continued to show up on flight tracking data, with Twitter users reporting the inability to take off or disembark flights. The FAA's airport delay-tracking map showed significant delays at Chicago's O'Hare, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, Miami International, Philadelphia International, and, especially, La Guardia and New Jersey's Newark airports, which persisted through 1 p.m.
"This shutdown has caused a tremendous amount of added stress for them on top of what is already a difficult and stressful job," National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement. "The entire National Airspace System is extremely complex and interconnected, so when delays begin at one major facility, there is a ripple effect that reaches across the system. It affects all flights that are scheduled to use the airspace of facilities where staffing is inadequate to safely handle traffic volume."
The FAA tweeted that the "traveling public can be assured that our nation’s airspace system is safe. The FAA continually reviews and analyzes its performance to assess its safety and efficiency."
Amid furloughs and high call-out rates, thin crews of transportation security administration (TSA) and ATC officers have been keeping airports running, but there have been consequences. Last month, Hartsfield-Jackson had to shutter one of its terminals because of an unusually high number of TSA agents calling out sick.
While the FAA has reported more than double the number of aviation employees calling out sick, NATCA Southern Regional Vice President Jim Marinitti said in an interview with Bloomberg that their union has not seen an increase in call-outs. He also said that the NATCA does not condone unneeded sick-outs.
"Safety has been and always will be our Number One priority," Marinitti said. "The NATCA does not condone or endorse any type of job action, sick-out or slow-down, and we will not. The public trust is sacred to us and we will continue to maintain that oath that we took when we took the job."
The current bout of delays comes two days after a joint statement from the heads of the Airline Pilots Association, Association of Flight Attendants and the NATCA warning of the risks from staffing shortages.
"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," the statement said.
On Friday, understaffed control towers in the Northeast led to flight delays. The FAA acknowledged a "slight increase in sick leave at two facilities" but said it addressed the problem.
"We are mitigating the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic, and increasing spacing between aircraft when needed," the organization tweeted out.
Flights are planned carefully to efficiently use the airspace, so adding additional spacing and rerouting traffic because the controllers on hand are unable to keep up with normal volume could have a ripple effect at busy airports, leading to significant delays. It's unclear if that was the cause of Friday's delays.
Aviation industry union and association leadership has been almost unanimous in opposing the partial government shutdown, now in its 35th day, which has created such uncertainty for aerospace. Sara Nelson, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) released a statement Friday rebuking lawmakers.
"This is exactly what AFA and other aviation unions have been warning would happen," Nelson's statement read. "The aviation system depends on the safety professionals who make it run. 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.
"Do we have your attention now, Leader McConnell? All lawmakers?" Nelson continued. "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."
President Trump has pledged to keep the government shut down until Congress agrees to supply more than $5 billion in funding for a Southern border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. More recently, he suggested he might consider a stopgap government funding measure if it contained a "large down payment."
On Friday morning, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders addressed flight delays to the media on behalf of the president.
“The President has been briefed and we are monitoring the ongoing delays at some airports," she said. "We are in regular contact with officials at the Department of Transportation and the FAA.”
So far, lawmakers have shown little willingness to budge from their positions and end the shutdown, even though it has little popular support, but if regular flight cancellations, halts and delays at major airports become commonplace, pressure to do so may mount quickly.
Even if the shutdown is ended quickly, the unions are worried about long-term impact.
"Due to the shutdown, the FAA has frozen hiring and shuttered its training academy, so there is no plan in effect to fill the FAA’s critical staffing need," the NATCA, ALPA and AFA said in their Jan. 23 joint statement.
"Even if the FAA were hiring, it takes two to four years to become fully facility certified and achieve Certified Professional Controller (CPC) status. Almost 20% of CPCs are eligible to retire today. There are no options to keep these professionals at work without a paycheck when they can no longer afford to support their families. When they elect to retire, the National Airspace System will be crippled."