Hundreds of flights in and out of Denver International Airport were delayed or canceled on Tuesday due to a flight controller testing positive for COVID-19. Over 40 flights were canceled and approximately 200 delayed over a period of several hours. An FAA facility was cleaned before operations were able to resume by early evening.
Full ground stop ordered after positive COVID test
Flights at Denver International Airport ground to a halt on Tuesday afternoon due to a positive COVID test. A member of the air traffic control team returned a positive test, which forced a full ground stop at approximately 15:00 local time. The stop lasted until 15:30 and forced ground delays and traffic management up until 18:00. An estimated 45 flights were canceled and over 200 were delayed.
An FAA employee working in an FAA facility on airport grounds tested positive for COVID. After being made aware of the positive test result, authorities moved employees into a backup facility while cleaning took place. According to CBS Denver, employees will work in a separate building on Wednesday as the workspace will undergo additional cleaning.
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Passengers were allegedly not informed
A mother whose son was removed from a plane due to the incident alleges that passengers weren’t told the real reason behind delays and cancellations. Speaking to Denver7, Kelley Suchey said,
“We all understand what happens with COVID and the shutdowns and everything, but it’s less scary knowing that’s what it was as opposed to trying to figure out, well why is the shutting down the airport and not telling us why?”
The same individual claims that passengers were told delays and cancellations were due to bad weather. While it isn’t clear whether or not bad weather did coincide with the COVID scare, Denver International Airport is frequently battling winter storms.
Multiple positive tests at Denver
The most recent positive COVID test is not the first to occur at Denver International Airport. According to the FAA, Denver employees have returned positive tests on Oct. 23, Nov. 22, Nov. 27, and Nov. 30. However, previous tests did not lead to such significant consequences to operations, presumably as they did not involve critical personnel such as air traffic controllers.
Across the United States, around 250 FAA facilities have experienced positive tests for COVID since the beginning of the pandemic. When possible, employees are moved to backup facilities to maintain operations. In some cases, the entire facility has been forced to shut down while cleaning takes place.
One way to potentially avoid costly delays in the future would involve a remote air traffic control system. One airport in Sweden, Scandinavian Mountains Airport, set up a completely remote ATC system that involves 17 wide-angle cameras managed by a team 350km away. Alternatively, authorities could have more streamlined contingency measures in place in the event of positive tests.