By Chloe Aiello
The consequences of political gridlock in Washington hit hundreds of airline passengers who experienced sweeping delays at major East Coast airports on Friday, just hours before President Trump agreed to a deal that would reopen the government temporarily.
The travel delays were precipitated by staffing shortages at two facilities handling air traffic control in Washington, D.C. and Jacksonville, Fla., which caused cascading delays at LaGuardia in New York, and Newark Liberty in New Jersey. The Federal Aviation Administration briefly halted flights into LaGuardia, and Philadelphia International Airport was also experiencing delays, CNN reported.
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that the delays were due to a "slight increase in sick leave" at the two East Coast facilities, and that air-traffic controllers were rerouting traffic, augmenting staffing, and increasing space between planes.
But those efforts did little to ease the frustrations of most passengers on flights Thursday night and Friday morning. For those beleaguered travelers, delays, cancellations, and lack of communication were among the main complaints, another side effect of history's longest-ever government shutdown.
More than 800,000 government employees missed their second paycheck on Friday, including Air Traffic Controllers and Transportation Security Administration workers, some of the lowest paid federal workers.
At LaGuardia's newly renovated Terminal B, passengers stepping off flights and rushing about the airport looked fed up.
Staci Smith, 36, had been stuck in the New York area since Thursday night. The mother of two was supposed to arrive back to her home in Arkansas at about 10:45 p.m. Thursday, but instead spent Friday morning hopping between Newark and LaGuardia Airports trying to catch a flight.
"It's pretty much, we're stuck," Smith said, letting out a tired laugh.
Her first flight was delayed, two subsequent flights were cancelled, and a fourth ー routing through Dallas ー was also delayed.
"Now we are all just trying to find an airport where we can drive home, so Dallas is the closest one for us," she said. "If I can just get to Dallas."
Passengers on an American Airlines flight from Charlotte, North Carolina, which was delayed about two and a half hours, said they sat on the tarmac for about an hour before they were given any information about the delay. By that time, the passengers had figured it out for themselves.
"The stewardesses didn't know, I mean nobody knew anything. We weren't getting anything from American [Airlines] until about an hour into the wait they were able to catch up," said Ella Bell Smith, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "Then we started getting on our phones and we could see there was an overall delay."
Stephanie Bernier-Monzon considered herself lucky. She arrived at LaGuardia on an American Airlines flight from Montreal that was only delayed for one hour. But the non-English speaking passengers on her flight had reason to be more frustrated.
"The message was only told in English, so the francophone passengers didn't know what was going on," Bernier-Monzon said.
Bell Smith, a Charlotte-area resident, flew to New York City for a combination of of work and family time. She is scheduled to fly out Saturday ー and it's imperative she makes it on time. Her husband waiting at home is sick with leukemia.
"I've got my community at home kind of watching after him, and I only made dinner for tonight and tomorrow night. I've got to make sure my hubby is OK," she said.
Bell Smith, a leadership expert, said she didn't hold it against the airline. "American did the best that they could under the circumstances," she said. But she does hold it against the president.
"If they give into the man in the [White] House, if they give into him, then he will play this trick every time. The problem is we have a leaderless country right now. A man who does not have compassion, does not have empathy, and definitely has very little leadership capability," Bell Smith said.
Only hours after news of the dramatic flight delays became public, President Trump announced he reached a tentative deal with Democrats to reopen the government temporarily while the two sides negotiate on border security. The continuing resolution would fund the government at current levels for three weeks, until Feb. 15, and reportedly does not include any funding for the border wall.
"We are pleased that we reached an agreement to reopen government now so that we can have a discussion on how to secure our borders," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, adding that she couldn't guarantee another shutdown wouldn't happen again, but "I do have to say I'm optimistic."
Speaking alongside Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer added that "this past month has proven just how vital government services are to the American people ー whether it's our food safety, our airports, our national parks, our economy, our national security and so much else."
Trump said Friday he "will make sure all employees receive their back pay very quickly, or as soon as possible."
For the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who have gone without pay, as soon as possible cannot come soon enough. And for travelers still being affected by delays, the concession may not offer much comfort.
Cousins Raven Brown, 27, and Tamia McFarlan, 18, should have arrived to La Guardia around 11 p.m. on Thursday. Instead they spent night at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest, and arrived to the city around 2 p.m. on Friday after five delays.
Brown and McFarlan said said communication from the airline wasn't great ー they heard about the delays in a text message, and there was no information on American Airlines' website.
"I'm here for a funeral, which makes it worse," Brown said.