One of the most popular airports in the United States issued a ground stop Friday morning due to an increase in Federal Aviation Administration employees not reporting to work, as the partial government shutdown crossed yet another new threshold in its 35th day.
FAA announced the ground stop for LaGuardia Airport in New York City just one day after the air traffic controllers union reported an increase in resignations and questioned the safety of the National Airspace System due to the ongoing shutdown. The agency quickly pushed back on those claims, saying, “The traveling public can be assured that our nation's airspace system is safe.”
Outgoing flights at LaGuardia can expect delays of one-and-a-half hours, FAA said on its website. The call out spike came as air traffic controllers and most employees furloughed or working during the shutdown missed a paycheck for the second time.
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"We have experienced a slight increase in sick leave at two facilities," FAA said in a statement. "We are mitigating the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic and increasing spacing between aircraft when needed."
The White House said on Friday it was keeping tabs on the situation and coordinating a response with the relevant agencies.
“The president has been briefed and we are monitoring the ongoing delays at some airports,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said. “We are in regular contact with officials at the Department of Transportation and the FAA.”
Air traffic controllers were the last federal employee union to formally strike, in 1981, but President Reagan fired most of them under a law that prohibits federal employees from engaging in such activities. NATCA, the successor to that striking union after it disbanded, has not organized any such action and air traffic controllers until recently voiced confidence their colleagues would report to work regardless of whether they were getting paid. On Friday, NATCA reiterated that it did not endorse or condone any coordinated effort that "negatively affects the capacity of the National Airspace System or other activities that undermine the professional image and reputation of the men and women we represent."
"With that said, in the past few weeks, we have warned about what could happen as a result of the prolonged shutdown," NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said. "Many controllers have reached the breaking point of exhaustion, stress, and worry caused by this shutdown. Each hour that goes by that the shutdown continues makes the situation worse."
Democratic lawmakers were quick to pounce on the news as an indictment of Trump’s shutdown strategy.
“This shutdown has to end,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal. “Our air traffic controllers and [Transportation Security Administration] officials do vital jobs and are currently being held hostage by the administration, threatening Americans' safety, creating unnecessary delays, and unduly risking an accident.”
The situation is likely to cause delays at airports around the country, which are dealing with their own staffing issues. NBC's Dallas affiliate reported that three air traffic controllers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport quit because they were not getting paid.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters the developments at airports could spark action on a short-term continuing resolution to temporarily halt the shutdown and grant back pay to federal workers.“The problems at airports are a sign of things to come,” Graham said. “I've been ready to vote for a three-week CR for quite a while, and I think that construct makes more sense today than it did yesterday given what's going on."