NYC Flight Disruptions Put Spotlight on FAA as Shutdown Drags On

(Bloomberg) -- A brief halt to flights into New York’s LaGuardia Airport escalated the pressure on President Donald Trump and lawmakers as they moved closer to temporarily reopening the government after a record shutdown.

A lack of workers at a key East Coast air-traffic control facility forced the Federal Aviation Administration to block inbound service to LaGuardia, delaying hundreds of flights Friday. The ground stop at one of the nation’s busiest transportation hubs was lifted at 10:37 a.m. after an hour and 22 minutes.

While the Federal Aviation Administration didn’t directly blame the shutdown, the airport disruptions stoked the political standoff by suggesting signs of growing strain as the government shutdown extended into a 35th day. Union leaders and U.S. airline bosses warned of heightened risk this week, with JetBlue Airways Corp. Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes saying the aviation system was reaching a “tipping point.”

The White House said the president was monitoring airport delays. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter that the shutdown is “pushing our airspace to the breaking point.’’ She called on Trump to agree to reopen the government and “stop endangering the safety, security and well-being of our nation.’’

Trump plans to address the shutdown in a press conference this afternoon amid reports he has struck a deal to temporarily reopen the government.

‘Sick Leave’

The FAA attributed the delays to “a slight increase in sick leave” and said that the effects on the aviation system were moderate. By about noon, the FAA had been able to supplement staff at the Washington-area air-traffic center that caused the brief halt and traffic was flowing normally.

“We’ve mitigated the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic, and increasing spacing between aircraft as needed,” the FAA said in an emailed statement. “The results have been minimal impacts to efficiency while maintaining consistent levels of safety in the national airspace system.”

What Our Analysts Say...

The FAA halt of flights into LaGuardia confirms rising risks for U.S. airlines’ 1Q results. Flight and security delays will reduce demand for air travel, and that’s going to require discounts to attract passengers. Profit and margin pain will follow.
-- George Ferguson, Bloomberg Intelligence’s aviation analyst

Read more in the full reaction note.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a labor union representing about 14,000 members, emphasized that it wasn’t urging controllers to participate in any job action.

“Air traffic controllers take their responsibility to protect the safety of the flying public at all costs very seriously,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement. “Nothing else matters except safety. With that said, in the past few weeks, we have warned about what could happen as a result of the prolonged shutdown. Many controllers have reached the breaking point of exhaustion, stress, and worry.”

Neither the FAA nor the air-traffic controllers union blamed the shutdown for the delays at LaGuardia. But the increasingly tense political situation meant that others were quick to see a link.

“Do we have your attention now, Leader McConnell?” Association of Flight Attendants - CWA President Sara Nelson said in a statement, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “This shutdown must end immediately.”

The Air Line Pilots Association said the LaGuardia ground stop “illustrates the serious negative effects the government shutdown is having on the aviation system.”

The New York delays provide “another good illustration of the escalating impact of the government shutdown and the need for the federal government to promptly re-open,” United Continental Holdings Inc. said. Delta Air Lines Inc. alone reported 200 flight delays at LaGuardia and other Northeast airports because of the ground stop. American Airlines Group Inc. said it hadn’t seen “significant impacts.”

Air-traffic control snarls “are typical in congested airports, but this reason is new and is a direct result of the government shutdown,” Helane Becker, a Cowen & Co. analyst, said in a note Friday. “Near-term results could be impacted if the shutdown lingers on, but long term this issue should be a speed bump for the airlines.”

Political Standoff

The situation at LaGuardia comes as Congress and the president have failed thus far to come up with an agreement to reopen the government. After the Senate rejected two proposals on Thursday, new talks began among McConnell, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the White House.

“McConnell and I had a good conversation,” Schumer told reporters Friday morning. “We’re trying to get everyone involved to work something out.”

In addition to the FAA’s Washington Center in Leesburg, Virginia, a second high-altitude control center in Jacksonville, Florida, also had a higher-than-expected absentee rate due to illness, according to the agency.

Atlanta Delays

While delays in pockets of the East Coast due to weather appeared to exceed the problems due to staffing, the lack of controllers continued to have an impact on Friday.

The FAA attributed delays at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the nation’s busiest hub, at least partly to staffing at the Jacksonville facility. Andy Gobeil, a spokesman for the Atlanta airport, said he was hopeful the delays wouldn’t mount later while cautioning that “we are aware of the interconnected nature” of the travel system.

The delays at LaGuardia occurred because of the sometimes arcane way the air-traffic system deals with congestion and how that ripples through the nation.

Washington Center, which handles high-altitude traffic in the middle of the Eastern Seaboard, had an increase in the number of controllers calling in sick.

When that happens, the FAA immediately cuts the number of flights that controllers must handle to ensure that the system remains safe and predictable. While aircraft flying to and from dozens of airports pass through Washington Center’s airspace, a decision was made to halt planes headed for LaGuardia.

Such delay programs, known in this case as a ground stop, happen almost every day throughout the nation as the FAA maintains order of the thousands of flights. Mostly they occur because of weather and rarely get attention in the media.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.