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Air traffic controller shortage delays flights at several major US airports

Key Points
  • On Day 35 of the partial government shutdown, a shortage of air traffic controllers prompts the Federal Aviation Administration to delay flights into New York's LaGuardia Airport.
  • Flights were also delayed at several other major airports, including at Newark, Atlanta and Philadelphia.
  • FAA air traffic controllers were told to work without pay during the shutdown.
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An increase in sick leave among air traffic controllers delayed hundreds of flights at several major airports in the eastern U.S. on Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Flights at New York's LaGuardia Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport were delayed on Day 35 of the partial government shutdown. More than 14,000 air traffic controllers and thousands of other federal aviation workers have been deemed essential employees and ordered to work without pay due to the impasse between lawmakers and President Donald Trump over funding for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico that the president had proposed.

On Friday afternoon, Trump and lawmakers reached a temporary solution that would to reopen and fund the government for three weeks, without the funding for the border wall that Trump wanted.

The shutdown infuriated the aviation industry, derailed airlines' plans to launch new planes and routes, and prevented new employees from getting their federal certifications. Increased absences of Transportation Security Administration officers, who were told to work despite not receiving regular pay, led to a spike in waits at some of the country's biggest airports throughout the month. The TSA has said the unscheduled absences are a result of the unpaid officers' financial strain.

The stations affected by the air traffic controller shortages on Friday — in Jacksonville, Florida and near Washington D.C. — oversee en route flights in a large swath of the eastern U.S.

"We have experienced a slight increase in sick leave at two facilities," an FAA spokesman said. "We've mitigated the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic, and increasing spacing between aircraft when needed. The results have been minimal impacts to efficiency while maintaining consistent levels of safety in the national airspace system."

The FAA had briefly halted flights into LaGuardia and some arriving flights were delayed almost an hour and a half, the agency said. By early afternoon, delays had moderated at Philadelphia and Newark, but had picked up at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest and a hub of Delta Air Lines, according to the FAA.

Airline executives and aviation workers have warned that the partial government shutdown would roil air travel, causing longer lines, delays and flight cancellations.

JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes said on an earnings call on Thursday that "we are close to a tipping point" with federal aviation workers set to miss a second paycheck.

Aviation workers -- including air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants -- in a joint statement earlier this week said they were worried about safety and security risks as a result of already stretched resources at federal aviation departments.

On Thursday, an FAA spokesman said the agency had seen "no unusual increased absenteeism and there are no operational disruptions due to staffing" because of the government shutdown.

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The union that represents the federal air traffic controllers "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," said Paul Rinaldi, president the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, in a statement.

"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," Rinaldi said.

For its part, United Airlines, which has the biggest presence of any airline in Newark, said it was working with FAA to minimize delays.

"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 reopen, " the airline said in a statement.

Delta Air Lines said it had about 200 flight delays at LaGuardia Airport on Friday and was working to rebook passengers affected by the delays.

Correction: Headlines for this story were revised to correct that the disruptions stemmed from a shortage of air traffic control workers.

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