An American Airlines Boeing 737-800 parked at LaGuardia Airport.
I was with a client on Long Island Friday when a news alert flashed across my phone from the Wall Street Journal:
"BREAKING NEWS: FAA issues ground stop for flights arriving at New York's LaGuardia Airport, citing staffing issues. Flights also delayed at Newark, Philadelphia."
"Wow!' exclaimed a man in the room. "The air traffic controllers finally stopped coming to work, I'll bet this ends the [government] shutdown."
We all agreed.
An hour later, and dutifully following Waze's commands, I was heading northbound across the Whitestone Bridge puzzled as to why airplanes were taking off and landing in quick succession. First, an American Airlines A321, a minute later a Delta Boeing 717, a Spirit Airbus, then a regional jet (yes, I'm an aviation geek).
Was LaGuardia shutdown? Not even slightly.
Turns out, there was a shortage of air traffic controllers at both the Washington, DC and Jacksonville, Florida TRACONs, or regional air traffic centers that manage the airspace above 20,000 feet for large swaths of the nation, typically several states wide. Ground stops (essentially delays at the airport of origin) were issued for flights to several airports, including LaGuardia, because staffing shortages necessitated combining controlled sectors and limiting sector capacity, according to NYC Aviation, a popular aviation blog. To ease congestion, the FAA issued ground stops, similar to what's become the norm during summer thunderstorm season.
So, why the disconnect? The media were reporting that LaGuardia was essentially closed, yet there I was, watching planes takeoff on Runway 13 and land on Runway 22, every minute. The answer is clickbait. The juicer the headline, the more clicks, The more clicks, the more ad revenue. Reporters and editors' job security is now tied to how many clicks their stories receive. Newsrooms know how to prey on an unsuspecting public with headlines that trigger reactions from readers, especially political ones. Imagine if the Wall Street Journal's news alert read:
"BREAKING NEWS: Some flights into New York airports delayed due to congested airspace, short staffing." There would be very few clicks.
Damage done. According to an MIT study, fake news is 70% more likely to be shared on Twitter than accurate information. And Twitter was a'buzz! Political supporters on each side of the aisle--and several members of the media--were busy turning the local LaGuardia controllers into folk heroes who had finally taken a stand against Donald Trump--or Nancy Pelosi--depending on which bubble you're in.
.So, was the Wall Street Journal news alert factually inaccurate? Technically no, but it was really misleading and helped to drive a false narrative online, and that's a public disservice.
So, question everything you read, even from reputable news outlets. And in case you were wondering, LaGuardia was adequately staffed. Read NYC Aviation's explanation of the ground stop here.