Commercial flight delays began to pile up on Friday morning as increased rates of sick leave at air traffic control facilities, likely related to the government shutdown, forced the Federal Aviation Administration to temporarily halt planes scheduled to depart for New York’s La Guardia Airport.
Flights were still landing at La Guardia, but arriving flights were being delayed at their origin airports, with a slightly smaller delay for departures from New York. Flights going into La Guardia were delayed by an average of an hour and a half; departures at Newark International Airport were delayed by an hour, also due to staffing shortages.
In a letter on Wednesday, National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Paul Rinaldi warned that the shutdown would begin to impose “significant capacity restrictions,” particularly in the New York region, where most of the nation’s airline delays begin. On Thursday, JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes warned investors, “We are close to a tipping point as employees are about to miss a second paycheck.” Elevated call-out rates from TSA screeners have also worried Republicans in Washington.
In some ways, the disruptions amounted to little more than a regular bad day at the New York-area airports, where congestion and weather conditions routinely lead to problems on the tarmac. But because of the New York airports’ central role in national air traffic, delays can ripple outward quickly. About one-half of all domestic airline delays begin at one of the three New York area airports.
Still, it’s very rare for staffing issues to cause disruptions to airplane traffic. Even Friday’s short ground stop will call attention to the vulnerability of the nation’s flight infrastructure, which depends on tens of thousands of federal workers who have been working without pay for 35 days.
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