Is Government Shutdown Giving Air Traffic Controllers the Flu?

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a status update on the U.S. air traffic control system indicating that La Guardia and Newark airports are forcing departure delays for flights into either airport. The agency said a “slight increase” in sick leave at two of its control centers are responsible for the impact on operations.

A ripple effect seems to have begun as the FAA flight information webpage now (11:10 a.m. Friday) shows Atlanta departure delays of at least 45 minutes and arrival holding delays of the same length. Orlando and Miami are experiencing departure taxi delays from 16 to 45 minutes and arrivals are seeing a similar delay.

According to Jon Ostrower’s The Air Current aviation news website, air traffic controllers may be staging a sick-out even though such action is forbidden by federal law. Ostrower spoke with “several” air traffic controllers Thursday who said a recent interpretation of a bill signed by President Trump on January 16 “would open the door for staff calling in sick.” Ostrower is a former Wall Street Journal and CNN aviation reporter and editor.

That interpretation issued in December by the federal Office of Personnel Management and was recently circulated to controllers by a staff member at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Under the interpretation, “excepted” employees (that is, those who must work without pay) will be paid back for sick leave taken during the shutdown.

One controller told Ostrower:

I would never imply that we’re going to abuse sick leave, and the mere suggestion that we’re doing so to get free leave is considered a job action punishable by law … however it is cold and flu season and our contractual protections regarding sick leave still apply so I personally wouldn’t be surprised if people’s self assessment regarding their fitness for duty becomes much more stringent. … [However,] by not showing up [for work,] you’re really only screwing your friends and making them work shorter than we usually do.

NATCA did not respond to Ostrower’s request for comment.

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