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Shutdown deal brings hope for air traffic relief as Super Bowl nears

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the federal government reopening: Super Bowl host city Atlanta.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was already straining under the weight of the 35-day partial shutdown, with unpaid-but-required-to-work Transportation Security Administration employees and air traffic controllers calling in sick at higher rates, or in some cases not reporting to duty because of considerations like day care or transportation costs.

And, with tens of thousands of people expected to descend on the city in a little more than a week for the nation’s premier sporting event, city officials dreaded how bad it might get.

Friday, a shortage of air traffic controllers caused delays at Hartsfield-Jackson and other airports around the country and temporarily halted flights into New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Security lines at Hartsfield-Jackson stretched into the domestic terminal atrium with wait times of up to 45 minutes.

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“Many controllers have reached the breaking point of exhaustion, stress and worry caused by this shutdown,” said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, in a written statement.

After a morning of chaos, President Donald Trump announced midafternoon that the shutdown would end for at least three weeks, while a border security plan is negotiated. A key airport industry leader welcomed the news, but called for a long-term deal.

Kevin Burke, president of Airports Council International-North America, in a written statement complained that the aviation system was “rapidly approaching a breaking point.” He warned that travel delays and disruptions would continue unless there is a final conclusion to the shutdown and urged the president and congressional leaders to act “so that our air transportation system is restored to its full capability.”

Super Bowl traffic looms

The deal to end the shutdown comes just as hundreds of private jets and charter aircraft are about to fly into Atlanta for the Super Bowl, adding congestion in the skies.

The Federal Aviation Administration expects to handle more than 1,100 additional general aviation aircraft because of the Super Bowl.

Charter flights coming into Atlanta for the game start as early as this weekend, when the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams arrive.

Atlanta-based Delta will handle towing, parking and offloading for officials from the National Football League, host TV network and VIP guests later in the week.

Other private aircraft facilities at and general aviation airports in the metro area are also expecting heavy traffic for the game.

Signature Flight Support, which handles private planes, is increasing staffing for the Super Bowl and has already reached capacity for overnight aircraft at Hartsfield-Jackson, DeKalb-Peachtree Airport and Fulton County Airport-Brown Field.

Those three airports are designated as gateway airports by the FAA, where flights will be security screened by TSA employees.

The FAA also expects more than two dozen airports around the state to get Super Bowl traffic, including in Polk County, Athens, Auburn University, Columbus, LaGrange and Harris County.

At Cobb County’s McCollum Field, more than 200 jets are expected to fly in for the Super Bowl — a 700 percent increase. Airport director Karl Von Hagel called finding spots for all of them “a tremendous challenge involving lots of game-time decisions.”

On the day of the game itself, there will be a temporary flight restriction around Mercedes-Benz Stadium from 5:30 p.m. until 11:59 p.m., during which the FAA requires pilots to make reservations and follow special protocols.

The flight restriction is designed “to protect the tens of thousands of attendees before, during and after the big game,” according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which will have aircraft patrolling the zone to help enforce the flight restriction.

On the day of the Super Bowl, CBP Black Hawk helicopter crews will help the U.S. Department of Defense to detect any aircraft violating the restriction.

There will be a highly restricted area in a 10-mile radius around the stadium.

There are also some restrictions up to 30 miles from the stadium, including a prohibition on drones flying within that 30-mile radius while the temporary flight restriction is in effect.

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