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East Coast Experiences Flight Delays At Hubs Due To Absent Workers

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For the first time, the shutdown appears to have slowed air travel today. Hundreds of flights into and out of New York's LaGuardia Airport and a few others face significant delays. That's because too few air traffic controllers showed up for work. NPR's David Schaper covers transportation and the airline industry. He joins us now. And David, first give us a sense of the scale of the airline delays today.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, there was a brief ground stop - a hold, essentially - on flights that were going to LaGuardia in New York, and also to Philadelphia and Newark, as well. Meaning those planes that are bound for those airports, particularly LaGuardia, were held at the gate or on the taxiway at the airport that they were leaving from and then not allowed to take off so they wouldn't face any delays while in flight and then have to circle around and maybe even get diverted to another airport. So and then those planes that arrived late, they're delayed and taking off again from LaGuardia to go to their next destination. And that's how the ripple effect of delays just goes across the country.

And the FAA says the reason for these delays was an increased number of employees at two air traffic control facilities on the East Coast who were out on sick leave today. And when there's too few air traffic controllers to safely manage a very congested region like New York, the FAA wants to slow the flow of traffic to put a little more distance between the planes, especially when they're taking off and landing. It's similar to what they do with bad weather, but this was obviously a human-focused problem.

CORNISH: Right. I mean, I don't know if you have a sense yet about why air traffic controllers were not coming in. And by that, I mean was this an organized sickout?

SCHAPER: Well, it doesn't appear that it was. At least, nobody is saying that it was. But there were just two facilities where there were more employees than usual who were calling in sick today. It's possible that they organized this on their own, but the union that represents the air traffic controllers says there was no organized sickout by the union. The president of that air traffic controllers association says the union does not condone employees joining any sort of coordinated activity like that that could compromise safety.

But he also says that many of the air traffic controllers are reaching what he calls the breaking point. It's a very stressful job, and the added strain of doing that job without pay, wondering how they'll pay the rent, the mortgage or other bills, could be a dangerous distraction to people whose sole focus should be on keeping the planes a safe distance from one another while flying over crowded cities. So there's really no margin for error, and the stress might just keep people away from work.

CORNISH: You mentioned the idea of a breaking point. Does anyone think that this also influenced the deal to reopen the government?

SCHAPER: Well, actually, many in the aviation industry think so. There are a lot of folks at the airlines who have been dreading a day like today, where the shutdown would actually delay flights and disrupt travel. Privately, some of them have been saying that, you know, maybe this is the kind of thing that we need to happen to encourage the White House and Congress to reach some sort of agreement to end this shutdown. This was costing the aviation industry quite a bit of money. The travel industry, an association there, says it was about a hundred-million dollars a day that was being lost in lost revenue because of the partial government shutdown and the disruption to air travel.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Schaper. David, thanks so much.

SCHAPER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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