Major flight delays across the nation on Friday, combined with alarms sounded by aviation-industry leaders over U.S. flight safety risks, reflect rising concerns that the 35-day-long, partial government shutdown has pushed airline safety to the brink.
The FAA ordered a ground stop for flights coming into New York City’s LaGuardia Airport on Friday, citing air-traffic controller staffing problems. Incoming flights were being delayed for close to 90 minutes Friday afternoon. Airport officials added that departures were running about 40 minutes late, on average.
Major delays were also reported at airports in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.
The disruptions came as President Trump and congressional leaders appeared to reach a deal to end the shutdown, at least temporarily.
The announcement of a deal to fully reopen the government comes less than a day after airline unions and industry CEOs warned that the continuing shutdown impasse is putting air safety at risk. How long the hangover from the record-long shutdown will continue to affect the air transportation system remains to be seen.
“We have a growing concern for the safety and security of our members, our airlines, and the traveling public due to the government shutdown,” the unions said in a statement Thursday. “This is already the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States and there is no end in sight.”
The statement was released by National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi, Air Line Pilots Association President Joe DePete, and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson.
“In our risk-averse industry,” the union leaders wrote, “we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break. It is unprecedented.”
The statement and growing flight disruptions signal that concerns over the safety of the U.S. air transportation system during the shutdown have moved beyond check-in delays and wait times.
Tim Bradley, senior consultant of IMG Globalsecur, a Florida-based global travel security firm, tells Newsmax the repercussions of the shutdown are growing.
“It’s getting to the point to where it’s starting to break some people,” he said. “It’s having repercussions that I don’t think a lot of people really thought about when this started.”
Transportation Security Administration employees, air-traffic controllers, and other federal workers are juggling their domestic responsibilities while working without pay. Some have taken on second jobs to make ends meet. In an industry with zero tolerance for mental lapses, the concern over the safety of U.S. air travel are growing.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said President Donald Trump had been briefed on the airport delays, and the White House is following developments closely.
“The president has been briefed and we are monitoring the ongoing delays at some airports,” Sanders told USA Today. “We are in regular contact with officials at the Department of Transportation and the FAA.”
The unions’ concerns follow numerous reports of hours-long wait times by passengers at airport security checks — particularly Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, the world’s busiest.
Bradley of IMG Globalsecur remarks: “When you have a massive amount of people coming into an airport — and Atlanta can be busy on any given day — I can imagine that can be a problem where people really start to feel the effects of the shutdown, if TSA employees are still calling in sick at that point.”
Even airline CEOs are complaining about how the effect the shutdown is having on their operations.
JetBlue Airways Corp. CEO Robin Hayes told analysts and investors Thursday: “We are close to a tipping point as employees are about to miss a second paycheck. The longer this goes on, the longer it will take for the nation’s air travel system to rebound.”
So far FAA data do not reflect an incident in safety issues, such as jets flying too close to each other. An FAA report released this week showed the frequency of incidents so far this year is about the same as last year, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
Incidents — called “deviations” by the FAA — have fallen 4 percent since the shutdown began on Dec. 22. Further, pilot-reported safety incidents dipped 14 percent over the same period last year, while total air traffic is up about 3 percent from a year ago.
But the three industry unions warn overall staffing remained at a 30-year low.
“Controllers are only able to maintain the system’s efficiency and capacity by working overtime, including 10-hour days and 6-day workweeks at many of our nation’s busiest facilities,” the union presidents said.
“Due to the shutdown, the FAA has frozen hiring and shuttered its training academy, so there is no plan in effect to fill the FAA’s critical staffing need.
“There are no options to keep these professionals at work without a paycheck when they can no longer afford to support their families.”
As the shutdown continues, aviation authorities caution travelers to expect delays.
And Bradley says they should continue to be alert for suspicious activity.
“Whether there’s a shutdown or not, that doesn’t change,” he said. “If you see something suspicious, say something.”
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