Staffing shortages that slowed flights could have been 'final straw' to end shutdown

Did an increase in sick leave by unpaid air traffic controllers on the East Coast that affected flights across the nation nudge the White House and Congress into an abrupt compromise Friday to reopen the government?

It didn't hurt, suburban U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski said.

"We will never know for sure, but the air traffic control delays today were probably just the final straw," Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat and member of the House Transportation Committee, said Friday.

Flights into and from New York experienced delays Friday after absences from controllers at two Federal Aviation Administration centers. The situation affected flights between New York and Chicago at O'Hare and Midway international airports with one arrival from LaGuardia International Airport posting a delay of three hours.

On Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump announced a deal to reopen the government for three weeks.

"The vote Thursday in the Senate that saw six Republicans join with Democrats to open the government as well as reports of Republican senators complaining to Vice President Mike Pence about the shutdown" also contributed to the compromise, Lipinski said.

For weeks, air traffic controllers had warned that worrying about how to pay their bills during 35 days without pay was increasing the stress of an already stressful job.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said the union didn't condone any activities that might negatively affect aviation operations.

"Air traffic controllers take their responsibility to protect the safety of the flying public at all costs very seriously," Rinaldi said. But "many controllers have reached the breaking point of exhaustion, stress, and worry caused by this shutdown."

Friday's delays caught the nation's attention.

In Chicago, aviation spokeswoman Lauren Huffman encouraged travelers heading to the East Coast to check with their airlines for flight status.

Federal workers have described using food banks, not being able to afford gas and worrying about missing car and mortgage payments.

"I had a young person come in and say, 'I commute a long way ... I'm real close to saying I need another option,'" veteran air traffic controller Toby Hauck, who works at FAA's long-distance flight center in Aurora, said on Monday.

But "we're going to keep the system safe," Hauck, an official with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said at a news conference. "We'll slow it down so it remains safe."

In 2013, with government cutbacks and furloughs related to the sequester situation, controller staffing declined by about 10 percent. That triggered increasing the space between flights to ensure safety, which caused a domino effect on air traffic, outraged the public and resulted in congressional action.

The staffing problems were at air traffic centers in Jacksonville, Florida, and a Washington D.C. center that controls high-altitude air traffic over seven states.

LaGuardia Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey were both experiencing delays in takeoffs.

"The national airspace is not just complex but interconnected "so when delays begin at one major facility, there is a ripple effect that reaches across the system," Rinaldi noted.

• Daily Herald Wire Services contributed to this report.

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