Flights delayed at JAX, other major airports due to FAA staffing

Government says 'slight increase in sick leave' causing flight delays

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – President Donald Trump announced Friday a short-term deal to reopen the government for three weeks as intensifying delays at the nation's airports and widespread disruptions brought new urgency to efforts to resolve the standoff.

The announcement came just hours after the Federal Aviation Administration reported delays in air travel because of a "slight increase in sick leave" at two East Coast air traffic control facilities.

FAA spokesman Gregory Martin said Friday the staffing problems were at an air traffic centers in Jacksonville, Florida, and a Washington, D.C., center that controls high-altitude air traffic over seven states. But News4Jax was told the tower at the Jacksonville International Airport was normally staffed. A security guard at the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center in Hilliard told News4Jax the facility was "fully staffed."

Martin said it had augmented staffing, rerouted traffic and increased spacing between planes as needed. He said safety is being maintained during a period of "minimal impacts" on travel.

Travelers at LaGuardia Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey were the hardest hit, but delays rippled across the nation's air-travel system.

By early Friday afternoon, more than 2,400 U.S. flights had been delayed, according to tracking service FlightAware, although the situation seemed to be improving from earlier in the day. At least five flights from New York-area airports to JAX showed delays. For most of the morning, delays were about 15 minutes to an hour. 

Maria Valdes had to wait at JAX for her high school classmate, whom she hadn't seen in 37 years, to arrive. Despite the delay, Valdes said, the wait was worth it.

"I would do it all over again. My heart is beating so fast," she said. "She's more than a friend. She is a sister."

Air traffic controllers and airport security agents have been working without pay since the federal shutdown began in December, but high absentee rates raise the possibility of long airport lines, or even worse.

"I actually have two friends that work for air traffic control, so they are not getting paid. I would've walked out, too," said Rebecca Lang, who waited two hours for another friend to arrive Friday at JAX. 

Lang said she didn't mind the delay because she wants her two friends who work as air traffic controllers -- one in Jacksonville and the other in Minnesota -- to get paid. 

"I feel bad because I know them personally and I know the impacts it has had on their families. The government shutdown -- it has just been bad all around," Lang said. "They haven't gotten paid in a while and they stood there and did their job, so I don't blame them (for walking out)."

According to an air traffic controller, there are three categories of employees:

  • Those funded by the Department of Transportation, which are those who haven’t been paid.
  • Those funded by the Department of Defense, whose funds have been approved through September.
  • Private contractors, who are funded without government money. 
  • An air traffic controller, who wished to remain anonymous, told News4Jax that despite the president's announcement that the government will reopen for three weeks, it should have never gotten to this point. 

    "We've had to have some talks with creditors, even going so far as to normal bills we pay. We're not living beyond our means, we're talking to a mortgage company about a possible forbearance," said the air traffic controller, who's a husband and a father of three. "The positivity is gone. I’m just going to be honest. You see it every day at work -- people normally smiling, you see them looking down at the floor. They’re asking themselves questions. They’re having to have conversations with their spouses."

    The current air traffic controller said it's a stressful job that requires intense focus. For those taking sick leave, he said, it’s better to have fewer employees who are focused and possible delays but a safe work environment, as opposed to having non-focused, stressed employees working long hours.

    VIDEO: Air traffic controllers call out sick

    Wayne Branch worked for 32 years at Jacksonville's center, just off U.S. 1 in Nassau County and about 25 miles northwest of JAX, which controls air traffic for much of the Southeast. Fortunately, Branch said, most in the industry are committed.

    "I’m sure that’s working hard on them, but most of them are pretty dedicated. It’s a pretty good job. I’m sure they don’t want to give that up, so they’re going to come to work as long as they can," Branch said.

    About 420,000 government employees, including air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration agents, have been working without pay; another 380,000 are furloughed.

    The FAA did not indicate how many controllers are missing work. While the focus Friday was on air traffic controllers, TSA said that 7.6 percent of its airport screeners scheduled to work Thursday did not show up, down from last Sunday's peak of 10 percent, but more than double the 3 percent absence rate of the comparable day last year.

    Meanwhile, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport had maximum wait times Thursday of 42 minutes, the highest of the nation's top 42 airports, TSA said in a statement Friday.

    Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport had the second-longest wait time, of 19 minutes.

    The long lines greeted passengers in Atlanta again on Friday. It was taking passengers 30 to 45 minutes to get through the main security checkpoint in the domestic terminal Friday afternoon, the airport's website showed.

    TSA has been moving agents to airports where there are shortages, and occasionally consolidating checkpoints, to prevent lines from getting too long.

    If you are coming to the airport to catch a flight or to pick someone up, you're asked to check the flight status first. 

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