A New COVID Problem: US ATC Centers Are Closing For Cleaning

COVID-19 has had a massive impact on commercial aviation. Over the last few weeks, a new problem has started to develop. As the virus spreads and impacts those in aviation, air traffic control centers in the US are closing for facility cleaning, creating a bit of an operational issue for airlines and airports.

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ATC closures are an issue for airlines and airports amid the ongoing pandemic. Photo: Getty Images

Jacksonville closed on Monday

On Monday, January 4th, cleaning was undertaken at Jacksonville’s air traffic control facility. The closure impacted the number of flights that could be routed through the geographic area the control center covers.

Per a report from local source News4JAX, an employee at the Jacksonville ATC Center tested positive for the virus, leading to the facility’s closure from 16:30 to 18:00 local time on Monday. As a result, aircraft had to be rerouted or delayed.

Data from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shows that a person working at the facility tested positive on January 3rd, leading to the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center’s closure for cleaning.

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Other air traffic control center closures

Before the start of 2021, the Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center shut down for COVID-19 related sanitization. Early on in the crisis, three FAA ATC towers were closed in March. This included the busy John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York. The other two were at Chicago-Midway (MDW) and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS). By the end of March, a total of 11 facilities were affected.

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JFK’s tower had to close for cleaning early on after the onset of the crisis. Photo: Getty Images

What this means for airlines

While there is some advance notification for closures related to cleaning facilities, it is still a problem for airlines and airports. Airlines schedule their flights months in advance, and changes in several daily flights can have a tremendous impact across the schedule.

A plane coming from, say, Tampa or Jacksonville to New York may be scheduled next to fly to another city like Chicago or Dallas and then from there onwards to perhaps Denver or Las Vegas. A delay of one flight can lead to knock-on delays on other flights.

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Closures can have knock-on effects across the system. Photo: Getty Images

The closure does not just impact one or two flights, but it can impact multiple flights. This includes those passing through the center, coming into airports near the center, or those departing that have to be routed through the center.

On the ground or in the air, it means some frustrated passengers. In some cases, flights that have to be rerouted end up taking longer. These last-minute schedule adjustments can impact scheduled airline operations.

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Not all air traffic controllers work in a tower overlooking an airfield. Photo: Getty Images

Will this continue to be a problem?

COVID-19 continues to spread across the United States. In multiple jurisdictions around the country, more and more people are falling sick, and some of those work in airport operations. The FAA has recorded many cases of personnel who tested positive for the virus.

As long as the virus continues to spread, more controllers are likely to test positive for it. Whether each isolated case requires ATC closures for cleaning, however, is not a guarantee.

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Air traffic controllers have been cleared to get the vaccine, but widespread vaccinations have not occurred yet. Photo: Getty Images

The bigger nightmare scenario is if multiple control centers and air traffic control towers have to be shut down for cleaning at the same time. This would impact flights across the country and be an operational nightmare for airlines. There is not much that can be done if this is the case, as the FAA would not have much of an advanced notice between when cleaning would need to occur after an employee tested positive for the virus.

What do you make of these ATC closures? Do you think this will get worse? Let us know in the comments!

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