When it comes to Super Bowl LIII, air traffic controllers are flying blind.
The government shutdown has already resulted in canceled planning meetings for the Feb. 3 game in Atlanta, and if the federal budget impasse continues, airport screeners and flight controllers at the busiest airport in the world will be working on game day for no pay.
Dan McCabe, a National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative, told NBC News that his colleagues had been holding meetings over the past year to prepare for the surge in travelers to the area. But now the planning meetings, which included officials from his union, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Football League, have been grounded.
“As soon as the shutdown happened, these meetings stopped happening,” McCabe said. As a result, controllers feel less prepared than they’d like for the anticipated 1,500 additional flights a day to the area during Super Bowl week.
“When we work on something as big as the Super Bowl — the biggest spectator event in the country — it takes us a lot of time to plan on extra airplanes and traffic,” McCabe said. “We’re going to keep the event safe, but we want it to be an enjoyable event for everybody. It’s frustrating that I know it won’t be as good as it could be.”
The impact of the shutdown has already been on display at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Travelers say they have been forced to wait on security lines for up to three hours because of a shortage of Transportation Security Administration agents, who’ve also been working without pay.
“Obviously, we are in uncharted territory with the shutdown that’s gone on this long, and we are preparing as best we can from our vantage point,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told reporters on Tuesday.
Typically, 60,000 to 80,000 passengers are screened daily at Hartsfield-Jackson, airport statistics show. While airport traffic is expected to increase for the entire week before the game, about 110,000 passengers are expected to leave through the airport the day after on what Bottoms called “Mass Exodus Monday.”