Just days after a federal judge denied a union bid to end the government shutdown, some of the nation's busiest airports ground to a halt due to "staffing" issues.
On Friday, airport operations at LaGuardia Airport in New York, Philadelphia International Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey experienced severe delays due to what the Federal Aviation Authority described as "staffing" concerns. Labor leaders were quick to blame the government shutdown for the mass delays. Trish Gilbert, a spokesman at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association appeared on CNN shortly after news of the delays broke and said the shutdown was "absolutely" linked to the stoppage. Air traffic controllers have missed their last two paychecks while on the job, while 3,000 other support staffers represented by the association have been furloughed.
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"You cannot continue to operate a system this complex for this long without the support structure of the people that are furloughed," she said. "We're already short-staffed and so now when you've added this stress to air traffic controllers and their personal circumstances … we're concerned that they're not fit for duty."
The news came 10 days after a federal judge denied a bid from federal workers unions to grant a temporary restraining order against the federal government. NACTA and the National Treasury Employees Union both filed suits arguing that forcing employees to work without pay violated the Constitution and labor laws. District Court Judge Richard Leon denied the motions in the same Jan. 15 hearing saying such an order could be "catastrophic." The unions have pressed on with the suits, hoping to obtain a temporary restraining order at a hearing set for Jan. 31.
"We are encouraged that [Judge Leon] acknowledged the ongoing hardships our members are facing because of the shutdown," Gilbert said in a release after the ruling. "We will continue to oppose the injustice of our members working while being deprived of their earned wages."
A NATCA spokesman did not respond to requests for comment about the lawsuits or the Friday slowdowns.
The FAA, which did not immediately respond to comment, said that the delays were caused by an uptick in sick leave taken by workers. The agency was working to re-route incoming planes and take other staffing measures to deal with the problem.
"We have experienced a slight increase in sick leave at two facilities," the agency said in a statement. "We are mitigating the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic, and increasing spacing between traffic when needed."
Other labor leaders were quick to follow suit in blaming the delays on the shutdown and threw their support behind NATCA. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said the air safety system would "unravel" and predicted the issue to spread to other airports on Friday morning. Both unions are affiliated with the labor giant AFL-CIO.
"As predicted, the system is starting to unravel. This is only the beginning. Our safety professionals from @NATCA are fatigued, worried, and distracted. But they won’t risk safety so the planes don’t fly. Dammit! #StopTheShutdown!" she said in a tweet.
As predicted, the system is starting to unravel. This is only the beginning. Our safety professionals from @NATCA are fatigued, worried, and distracted. But they won’t risk safety so the planes don’t fly. Dammit! #StopTheShutdown! https://t.co/bGsvUgN4yf
— Sara Nelson (@FlyingWithSara) January 25, 2019
The shutdown entered its 35th day on Friday. The union is scheduled to appear back in federal court for oral arguments on Jan. 31.