By David Brand
The federal government’s partial shutdown complicated travel plans for thousands of airline passengers Friday morning as staff shortages at three air traffic control centers forced the Federal Aviation Administration to delay, divert or cancel dozens of departing flights at LaGuardia and Newark airports.
“No one could make up the situation that we're in. And it gets worse every day,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “Today they issue a ground stop — they halt flights leaving LaGuardia Airport. Why do they do that? Because due to the federal shutdown, there are too few staff at the FAA in Washington to adequately control air traffic and they have to reduce flights.”
FAA spokesman Gregory Martin said the problems would have "minimal impacts" on travel.
Nevertheless, photos of flight information display systems posted on social media showed departures screens lined with “cancelled” or “delayed” flights.
The FAA reported air travel delays because of a "slight increase in sick leave" at two East Coast air traffic control facilities. Thousands of federal employees deemed “essential” have been forced to go — without pay — to work as TSA agents and air traffic controllers. Friday marked their second missed paycheck.
Martin said the agency had increased staffing, rerouted air traffic and increased spacing between planes as needed. The staff shortages occurred at air traffic centers in Jacksonville, Florida and Washington, D.C.
Air traffic controller Dan Conklin told the Eagle last week that he and his colleagues continue to show up for work despite the financial hardship.
“We are professionals, and we are trained to work under stressful conditions. There are just certain things that we shouldn’t have to worry about, like whether or not we’ll be receiving our next paycheck,” said Conklin, who moved from Williamsburg to Burlington, Vermont, to work as an air traffic controller.
President Donald Trump had not commented on the airport chaos in a formal statement or on Twitter as of Friday afternoon. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said he had been briefed on the delays.
"The President has been briefed, and we are monitoring the ongoing delays at some airports,” Sanders said. “We are in regular contact with officials at the Department of Transportation and the FAA.”
As of Friday afternoon, the chaos did not seem to reach Kennedy Airport, according to a custodian who works in Terminals 1 and 2.
“It has been normal,” she said. “I did hear them complaining about not getting paid.”
Terminal 5 also seemed calm and relatively empty.
Brooklyn resident John Welsh, 31, was scheduled to fly into LaGuardia Airport from Nashville on Friday afternoon. The flight was redirected to Kennedy, but his fellow passengers seemed calm, he said.
“No stress at all,” he said.
That was not the case at LaGuardia or among TSA workers, said Councilmember Adrienne Adams, who represents a piece of Southeast Queens that is home to many TSA agents.
“As the federal government shutdown continues, it is wreaking havoc at New York’s LaGuardia Airport,” Adams said. “The FAA halting flights due to staffing shortages is a pivotal moment in America’s longest government shutdown as it has now impacted the general public. Sadly, for over a month federal employees have been hurting as they continue to work without a paycheck.”
“This shutdown is not a political game,” Adams continued. “It is a threat to the safety and livelihood of Americans, which leaves me asking a simple question: Are we great yet?””
Additional reporting by Nalini Boodnie and The Associated Press.