Airport delays ripple across Northeast due to air traffic controller shortage

The delays were cascading along the Eastern Seaboard, reaching as far north as Boston.

On Friday, La Guardia Airport was closed off to arriving flights.
On Friday, La Guardia Airport was closed off to arriving flights. –John Taggart / The New York Times

Significant flight delays were rippling across the Northeast on Friday because of a shortage of air traffic controllers as a result of the government shutdown, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The agency said it was slowing traffic in and out of airports because of staffing problems at facilities in Washington and Jacksonville, Florida.

The delays were cascading along the Eastern Seaboard, reaching as far north as Boston. But La Guardia, in New York City, was the only airport closed off to arriving flights from other cities because it was so crowded with planes taking off and landing on a weekday morning.

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Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International airports continued to operate, and flights bound for those airports were proceeding.

On Wednesday, unions representing air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants offered an urgent warning that the lengthy government shutdown had created serious safety concerns for the nation’s air travel system. Like many other federal employees, the controllers have been working without pay for more than a month.

“The President has been briefed and we are monitoring the ongoing delays at some airports,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. “We are in regular contact with officials at the Department of Transportation and the FAA.”

A spokesman for the FAA confirmed that it was rerouting planes and slowing air traffic to cope with an increase in the number of controllers calling in sick.

The spokesman said the changes were having “minimal impacts to efficiency.”

On Friday morning, the departures screen at one of the terminals at La Guardia began to show ‘Delayed’ across arriving flights.

The partial shutdown, nearing five full weeks, has caused strain across the air travel system. For more than a month, thousands of transportation security officers and air traffic controllers have been working without pay. Many have taken on side jobs driving for ride-hailing apps or in restaurants to try to pay their bills.

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Staffing among air traffic controllers, who are responsible for keeping planes from colliding, was already an issue even before the shutdown, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the controllers’ union.

The number of certified controllers is at a 30-year low, the union said, and staffing at the centralized radar facility for the airports that serve New York City, which is known as a Tracon, has only about 130 controllers, far short of its full complement of 228.

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