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Air Traffic Sick Calls Force Brief Ground Stop at LaGuardia, Cause Total Chaos Along East Coast

The staffing issues weren't at LaGuardia, which the FAA says experienced a "ripple effect" from shortages at other hubs

What to Know

  • A brief ground stop was ordered at LaGuardia, which experienced a "ripple effect" because of a spike in staff sick calls at other hubs
  • It came on the 35th day of the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history; Friday also marked the 2nd missed paycheck for 800K
  • Hours later, President Trump announced a deal had been reached to reopen the government until Feb. 18

A brief ground stop was ordered Friday at LaGuardia Airport, which experienced a "ripple effect" because of a spike in staff sick calls at other hubs as tensions boiled over the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history.

The stop was ordered shortly before 10 a.m., on the 35th day of the shutdown and hours before President Trump announced from the Rose Garden that a deal had been reached to reopen the federal government until Feb. 18.

LaGuardia's ground stop had been reduced to a "ground delay program," meaning air traffic was moving again, within about 40 minutes. The FAA said LaGuardia's staffing was not the issue; the problems were in Washington, D.C., and Florida.

"We have experienced a slight increase in sick leave at two air traffic control facilities affecting New York and Florida," the FAA said in a statement. "As with severe storms, we will adjust operations to a safe rate to match available controller resources. We've mitigated the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic, and increasing spacing between aircraft as needed." 

The "ground delay progam" status at one point caused arriving flights into LaGuardia to be delayed about 1 hour and 26 minutes, according to the FAA.

Arriving flights from Newark International and Philadelphia International airports were being delayed by an average of 41 minutes at one point. Later, LaGuardia released a statement saying, "Due to shaffing shortages at FAA air traffic control centers along the East Coast, there are major delays at LGA." 

At least one traveler tweeted that she was sitting on the tarmac for nearly an hour because of "staff shortages in air traffic control." Making matters worse, her flight landed 45 minutes early, she said.

Another traveler said his JetBlue flight was approaching a 2-hour delay after its original route was canceled because of the staffing issues; he said the plane had to return to the gate to refuel for a new route. Still another traveler said she was stuck on a Southwest flight in Baltimore.

Yet another, one traveling Delta, described total chaos in LaGuardia's Terminal C. Delta released a statement saying it was working closely wtih the FAA and airport officials to try to minimize the impact on its operations and customers.

"At this point, we don't anticipate significant schedule disruptions, but it is another good illustration of the escalating impact of the government shutdown and the need for the federal government to promptly re-open."

The trouble wasn't only on the ground at LaGuardia. 

In a video taken aboard a Delta flight from Atlanta to the Queens hub, the pilot can be heard telling passengers: "I’m sure they’re doing the best they can but um I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes another 20 to 30 minutes before we come, become airborne. I can’t see out the taxiways but uh just by listening to the radio chatter I get the feeling this is not gonna go uh very uh quickly. So I’ll uh keep you posted, as soon we can start our push, our name’s in the hat, as soon as they let us do that I’ll have a better idea of how long this is gonna take."

The air traffic chaos came on the second missed payday for 800,000 federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the shutdown on Twitter amid the chaos, writing, "The #TrumpShutdown has already pushed hundreds of thousands of Americans to the breaking point. Now it's pushing our airspace to the breaking point too. .@realDonaldTrump, stop endangering the safety, security and well-being of our nation. Re-open government now!"

Trump announced the temporary reopening about four and a half hours later.

Unions that represent air traffic controllers, flight attendants and pilots had been growing concerned about safety and security of its members and passengers as the shutdown stretched well into its fifth week. 

The presidents of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Air Line Pilots Association and Association of Flight Attendants cautioned in a joint statement earlier Friday that the airline industry "cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break. It is unprecedented." 

"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,” said the statement from the unions’ presidents.

Following Trump's announcement on deal to temporarily end the government shutdown, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson said "federal workers are not facekess bureaucrats."

"It is wonderful news that the there is a deal to end this senseless shutdown, and the lockout of nearly a million Americans from their jobs or their paychecks. This never should have happened and it must never happen again. It should be abundantly clear to the American people that federal workers are not faceless bureaucrats," Nelson said.

"To all Americans: if there is anything this shutdown has taught us, it should be that labor rights matter. We must work together to improve rights for working Americans. Our democracy depends on it," Nelson's statement continued.

Federal workers have said going without pay was grinding them down, and they weren't sure how much longer they could take it. Two Senate votes to reopen the government failed on Thursday. 

"At work, the morale is really low," said Tyler Kennard, an air traffic controller in San Diego. "It's actually more stressful now with this government shutdown than it was when I was in a war zone in Iraq doing the same job." 

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