Word of staffing shortages affecting air-traffic control came early on the 35th day of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history as air-traffic controllers and other federal employees missed their second straight paycheck. Following the temporary “ground stop” at LaGuardia, the FAA reported major delays at Newark Liberty International Airport due to wind, as well as delays at Philadelphia International Airport. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, the busiest in the world, saw an average departure delay exceeding an hour as of noon. The FAA identified the cause of the staffing shortage as “a slight increase in sick leave at two facilities,” the centralized Air Route Traffic Control Centers at Leesburg, Virginia, and Jacksonville, Florida. The agency said that the staffing-induced delays at LaGuardia were averaging 86 minutes.
While “sickouts” by employees at the Transportation Security Administration had merely affected security-checkpoint wait times in recent weeks, a lack of controllers directly leads to flight delays and cancellations. Since the first missed paycheck on January 11, TSA absenteeism has run at two to three times the rate for the same period last year. Some airports have seen painfully long wait times for security checkpoints; lines in Detroit took as long as 78 minutes on Wednesday, and some passengers in Atlanta waited for nearly 90 minutes last week. However, as the agency has reported in daily updates, only a fraction of a percentage point of travelers have waited longer than 30 minutes, and at least 90 percent of passengers waited less than 15 minutes.
In contrast, more air-traffic controllers calling in sick has a direct and dramatic affect on U.S. air travel. “You can’t replace them easily, and they are not overstaffed,” the aviation consultant Michael Boyd told me Thursday. “The air-traffic-control system is very, very thin.”
The industry prides itself on safety and has established mechanisms to limit traffic in case of controller shortages, explains John Hansman, a licensed pilot and an FAA adviser who leads MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation. “We’re going to run it safe. So if you only have a certain amount of people (for air-traffic control and security screening), you’re going to end up with delays. You will see fairly shortly, if nothing is fixed, really significant security delays, at the scale we had in the months after September 11.” If the shortage of controllers grows critical, he adds, “They would shut down the system instead of letting it run dangerous.”
This all raises questions: How many air-traffic controllers are calling in sick? Have they joined the “sickout” among TSA screeners? Is this a coordinated action, or simply the accumulation of isolated decisions?
The second no-pay payday on Friday is a possible reason that controllers called in sick. Some might feel a need to pursue outside work to pay the bills while waiting for the shutdown to end; Congress and Trump already enacted a law guaranteeing back pay for federal workers, but expenses pile up in the interim. Earlier in the week, I spoke with a controller who works at Chattanooga’s airport, who warned that the TSA sickout could conceivably spread. “You may start seeing that in air-traffic control,” says Jon Manley, who is a local representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The union’s national spokesman, Doug Church, did not immediately respond to calls or emails Friday morning.