NEW YORK – There had been signs for weeks: a growing number of TSA officers weren’t showing up for work. Elected officials and union leaders warned the prolonged government shutdown was bad for the safety and efficiency of the nation’s aviation system.
On Friday, those warnings played out with astonishing speed after the Federal Aviation Administration announced it was restricting flights into and out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport because there weren’t enough air traffic controllers to manage them safely.
Within hours, the White House weighed in.
“We are in regular contact with officials at the Department of Transportation and the FAA,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
It was only one airport, but the impact rippled through the system. At one point, arrivals at LaGuardia were delayed for an average of nearly two hours; for departures, it was nearly an hour. Delays also were reported at airports in Newark, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
The FAA’s action was the first time staffing shortages hit air traffic control centers during the shutdown. The TSA had struggled to keep security checkpoints operating amid a growing number of callouts, but while those shortages increased wait times at some airports, they didn’t affect planes once in the air.
Friday’s staffing shortages affected centers in the Washington, D.C., area and Jacksonville, Florida, that manage air traffic above 33,000 feet, including the airspace around New York and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, the world’s busiest airport.
An estimated 800,000 federal employees had been furloughed or working without pay. That includes TSA officers and air traffic controllers, who normally would have been paid Friday.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said Friday’s worker absences were not part of any coordinated effort.
“NATCA 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,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement. “Nothing else matters except safety.”
At LaGuardia, travelers stared grim-faced at airport information boards, which listed dozens of flight delays.
Kevin Maldonado, 28, flew into LaGuardia from Orlando, Florida, on Friday and missed the delays, but was stuck at the airport waiting for a friend, whose arrival from Georgia was delayed three hours.
“I think it’s unfair,” he said, referring to airport workers who weren’t being paid. His best friend is a TSA manager who was working as an Uber driver to earn money, he said.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said aviation unions had warned of the shutdown’s consequences.
“They are fatigued, worried and distracted, but they won’t risk our safety,” she said of flight attendants. “So the planes will stay on the ground. This is anything but a sickout – it is only about our safety and the air traffic controllers’ absolute commitment to it.”
After reading about the travel delays Friday morning, Stefanie Cornwall, 27, arrived for her Spirit flight out of Philadelphia International Airport 30 minutes earlier than she typically would. Cornwall, who travels frequently for work, was flying to Los Angeles to visit family and said that despite the inconvenience, she supported the workers.
“Yes, I’m affected because it’s annoying and it’s a nuisance to me, but for these federal workers, they’re not being paid, even when they’re coming in to work. It’s ridiculous,” she said. “To me, honestly, that’s what is truly annoying.”
But within hours, lawmakers had a deal for ending the shutdown. Whether the slowdown at LaGuardia moved that along isn’t clear, but at least one member of Congress took to Twitter to declare it had made the difference.
“Thank you air traffic controllers,” tweeted D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. “You scared Trump into opening the government.”
The Washington Post’s Rebecca Tan reported from Philadelphia. Simone Sebastian contributed to this report.