JIA Seeing Flight Delays As FAA Experiences Sick Leave Increase During Shutdown

Jan 25, 2019

A signficiant number of flights were being delayed in Jacksonville and around the country Friday due to a shortage of air traffic controllers during the partial government shutdown. 

On Friday morning the FAA tweeted, "We have experienced a slight increase in sick leave at two facilities. We are mitigating the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic, and increasing spacing between aircraft when needed."

One of those facilities is Jacksonville International Airport. The other one is the Washington, D.C., air traffic control center.

Related: President Trump Announces Short-Term Deal To End Shutdown

JIA spokesman Michael Stewart told WJCT News Friday that flight groundings in the Northeast are having a ripple effect throughout the country. 

"Because of the slowdown in the Northeast - which is a major hub for air traffic - it is having a ripple effect throughout the country, and the world," said Stewart.

Jacksonville air traffic controllers are responsible for approximately 160,000 square miles of airspace over parts of much of the Southeast, up through North Carolina, according to the FAA.

A check of departing flights at Jacksonville International Airport showed more than a dozen flights had been delayed Friday morning to cities including Newark, N.J.; Boston and New York City.

“So it is important that travelers check with their airlines before heading to the airline to catch a flight, and if you’re coming to the airport to pick someone up, just check to see what’s the status of their flight, ” said Stewart.

The White House said officials are keeping an eye on the delays.

"The president has been briefed and we are monitoring the ongoing delays at some airports," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Friday morning. "We are in regular contact with officials at the Department of Transportation and the FAA."

Several hours after Sanders issued her statement Presdient Donald Trump announced that he had reached a deal with Democrats to reopen the government until February 15 while negotiations over a longer term budget continue.

As the government shutdown has stretched on for more than 34 days, many air traffic controllers and transportation security officers have been working without pay. That can increase stress on those who do these jobs, says Erin Bowen, an expert in aviation psychology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

"The longer this continues — the longer you have folks who are mandatory employees coming in but not receiving a paycheck to do the job you're asking them to do, the more stress they're under," she told NPR.

"And when your job is to do something like separate aircraft safely in the sky over a crowded city, those are not the folks you want who are distracted by what is really a preventable stressor."

Partial List Of JIA Flight Delays As of 10:50 A.M. Friday

This screenshot from flightview.com shows a partial list of delays Friday at Jacksonville International Airport.
Credit Flightview.com

The FAA reported significant flight delays at New York's LaGuardia Airport and at New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport because of a shortage of workers. Philadelphia International Airport also was experiencing slight staffing-related delays.

LaGuardia attributed the problem to a shortage of workers "at FAA air traffic control centers along the East Coast." On Friday morning, some flights arriving at the airport were delayed by an average of 1 hour and 26 minutes.

The PBS NewsHour reported unions representing air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants warned that the government shutdown was compromising the safety of air travel.

On Thursday, they gathered at Reagan National Airport with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to express their concerns. Judy Woodruff spoke with Trish Gilbert, vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, about "unraveling" safety. See this video for that part of the story:

Bill Bortzfield can be reached at bbortzfield@wjct.org, 904-358-6349 or on Twitter at @BortzInJax.

Contact Abukar Adan at 904-358-6319, aadan@wjct.org or on Twitter at @abukaradan17.