The Federal Aviation Administration briefly issued a ground stop for arriving flights at New York’s LaGuardia Airport Friday morning before lifting it about an hour later. Staff shortages also delayed flights at Newark Liberty International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport, the FAA said.
Hundreds of thousands of federal workers have been furloughed or, as with some airport workers, required to work without pay. Some federal agencies have reported much higher absence rates among workers as they face an indefinite wait for their next paychecks.
The delays immediately became a new flashpoint in the political standoff between the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. President Donald Trump over the shutdown, caused by a dispute about funding for Trump’s plan to increase barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Democrats in the House are demanding a reopening of the government before any negotiations with Trump and his Republican allies in Congress on border security.
The disruptions come the day after the U.S. Senate rejected two shutdown-ending bills as hundreds of thousands of federal workers missed a second paycheck on Friday.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, wrote on Twitter that the shutdown “has already pushed hundreds of thousands of Americans to the breaking point.” “Now it’s pushing our airspace to the breaking point too,” her message said, calling on Trump to “stop endangering the safety, security and well-being of our nation.”
The White House said Trump had been briefed on the delays and was monitoring the situation at the airports.
The flights were affected by a lack of air traffic control workers in Washington and Florida. Flights into LaGuardia were delayed an average of an hour by midday Friday, according to the FAA. Port Authority said the airport, one of the busiest in the country, is seeing residual delays from the morning ground stop.
The FAA command center is staffed by both the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) union. The LaGuardia airport alert specifically mentioned staffing issues, which many say is a significant message.
On Wednesday, as the government shutdown hit the 33rd day mark, the NATCA, Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) unions released a joint statement about their growing concerns for air travel safety.
“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 statement read. “It is unprecedented.”
Air traffic controllers, TSA agents, safety inspectors, air marshals and more have been working without a paycheck for over a month, but these fields have already been short staffed, experts say, causing even more stress.
“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,” per the statement. “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.”
FAA responds to LaGuardia, staffing issues amid government shutdown
An FAA spokesperson confirmed to Metro on Friday that the administration has seen a shortage, specifically that it has “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,” the spokesperson added. “The results have been minimal impacts to efficiency while maintaining consistent levels of safety in the national airspace system. The public can monitor air traffic at fly.faa.gov and they should check with airline carriers for more information.”
On Thursday night, the FAA released a statement assuring “the traveling public” that the nation’s air system is safe.
— The FAA (@FAANews) January 24, 2019
“The FAA continually reviews and analyzes its performance to assess its safety and efficiency,” the statement continued. “We remain grateful to the air traffic controllers, technicians and inspectors for their continued professionalism and dedication to their safety mission.”
But this contrasts with workers who have boots on the ground, who say they are “not confident that system-wide analyses of safety reporting data, which is used to identify and implement corrective actions in order to reduce risks and prevent accidents is 100 percent operational due to reduced FAA resources.”
LaGuardia is a hub for Delta Airlines. In a statement, Delta said that as of Friday morning, the airline “is experiencing about 200 flight delays at New York’s LaGuardia Airport as well as other airports in the Northeast region due to the FAA’s Ground Delay Program. Delta is working to reacommodate customers to their destinations and encourages customers traveling on Friday to check delta.com or the Fly Delta App for their current flight status.”
Reuters contributed to this report