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Flights into busy New York airport halted due to staffing shortages amid government shutdown

This is the longest government shutdown in history.

Travelers at Gate D inside of LaGuardia Airport on December 20, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)
Travelers at Gate D inside of LaGuardia Airport on December 20, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that flights into New York’s La Guardia Airport, one of the busiest airports in the country, have been halted due to staffing shortages in the midst of the ongoing partial government shutdown.

The announcement comes just one day after aviation labor union leaders met to discuss the safety and security issues brought on by the government shutdown, including attrition and the “ramifications of being unable to address equipment and staffing shortages.”

According to the FAA, staffing issues at regional air traffic control centers, including the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, VA and the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center in Hilliard, FL have affected traffic arriving at La Guardia, causing delays.

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The FAA tweeted Friday morning that a “slight increase in sick leave” at two facilities has resulted in a staffing shortage.

Air traffic has also been delayed at airports in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando, and Newark. The delays and halted flights will likely affect airports across the country. Early reports suggested that air space around Washington, D.C. had been shut down, but an employee at Dulles Airport told ThinkProgress at the time of publication that no cancellations have been reported.

In a statement following the FAA announcement, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Paul Rinaldi, said that while “NATCA does not condone or endorse any federal employees participating in or endorsing a coordinated activity that negatively effects the capacity of the National Airspace System … Many controllers have reached the breaking point of exhaustion, stress, and worry caused by this shutdown.”

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“Air traffic controllers are required to report fit for duty every shift. It is a very high
threshold of fitness demanded by the seriousness of the job. This shutdown has caused
a tremendous amount of added stress for them on top of what is already a difficult and
stressful job,” Rinaldi added.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) union, which represents about 50,000 flight attendants, said, “This is exactly what AFA and other aviation unions have been warning would happen. The aviation system depends on the safety professionals who make it run. They have been doing unbelievably heroic work even as they are betrayed by the government that employs them. They are fatigued, worried, and distracted — but they won’t risk our safety. So the planes will stay on the ground. This is anything but a sick out — it is only about our safety and the air traffic controllers’ absolute commitment to it.”

“Do we have your attention now, Leader McConnell?” Nelson added, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “This shutdown must end immediately.”

Air traffic controllers are among the 800,000 federal workers affected by the shutdown. On Wednesday, unions representing air traffic controllers, flight attendants, and pilots urged Congress and the White House to end the government shutdown, warning that the reduction in resources could affect their ability to prevent accidents.

“In our risk averse industry, 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 read.

This is a developing story and will be updated.