ATC Delays Break U.S. Government Shutdown Impasse

 - January 25, 2019, 11:45 AM

The White House announcement Friday afternoon of an agreement to end the prolonged shutdown came as air traffic staffing shortages created lengthy delays for traffic in the New York area. President Donald Trump detailed an agreement to reopen the government until February 15 while negotiations over border security continued. Reports cited the air traffic delays Friday morning as playing a role in the decision to move forward with a compromise on the five-week-old shutdown.

A temporary ground stop had been put in place at La Guardia Airport (LGA) and then ground delay programs at both LGA and at Newark Airport (EWR) in New Jersey Friday morning. The ground stop at LGA was lifted, but with delay programs the FAA warned of delays up to 245 minutes at LGA, averaging 86 minutes, while delays at Newark averaged 61 minutes, but could reach up to 166 minutes. The FAA released a statement on Friday saying, “We have experienced a slight increase in sick leave at two facilities. We’ve mitigated the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic, and increasing spacing between aircraft when needed.”

National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Paul Rinaldi, meanwhile, said the association “does not condone or endorse any federal employees participating in or endorsing a coordinated activity that negatively affects the capacity of the National Airspace System or other activities that undermine the professional image and reputation of the men and women we represent…Nothing else matters except safety.”

But Rinaldi added that in recent weeks the association has warned what could happen as a result of a 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,” he said. “This shutdown has caused a tremendous amount of added stress for them on top of what is already a difficult and stressful job.”

The nation already has been at a 30-year low of fully certified controllers, Rinaldi further reminded.

House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Pete DeFazio (D-Oregon) agreed, responding to Friday’s delays by saying that every day the shutdown continues “jeopardizes the safety and security of the largest, most complex aviation system in the world.” He called for an end to the shutdown, DeFazio said. “For 35 days, the dedicated air traffic controllers who guide 43,000 flights a day and keep millions of Americans safe each year have gone to work knowing that they will not be paid. Today marks the second time that our air traffic controllers will receive pay stubs that say zero dollars. Meanwhile, their bills are piling up and many are struggling to make ends meet.”

These delays came after NATCA joined the leaders of a handful of other labor unions this week in giving a stark warning that the longer the shutdown continues the greater the risk that safety of the National Airspace System will erode. “There is going to come a point when we are no longer able to maintain the levels of safety and security the aviation industry and the traveling public have come to know and rely upon,“ the unions said in a joint statement. “The longer the shutdown goes on, the greater that threat becomes. Lawmakers have a responsibility to preserve the safety and integrity of our nation’s aviation system by reopening the federal government.”

The unions, representing a cross-section of government and private sector employees, from inspectors, controllers, and system maintainers to flight attendants, pilots, and machinists, met on the eve before two bills designed to reopen the government failed in the Senate.

They looked at the mounting effects the shutdown is having on the industry—including worries about attrition of people in safety-sensitive positions, the inability to fully address equipment outages and staffing shortages, and toxic levels of stress—are having on those who play critical roles in keeping the aviation industry safe and secure.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the agreement to end the shutdown.