Some flight schools like to operate at or at least have access to airports with control towers. The operative theory is that this prepares the student for the real world of IFR and ATC. Fine as far as it goes, but what happens when the pilot who’s used to the warm bosom of approach, tower and ground suddenly loses all of it?
That’s exactly what’s happening this week in the ATC system. As of Saturday, four major ATC facilities had been abruptly shut down after controllers or technicians were diagnosed with COVID-19. It happened at Chicago’s Midway Airport, at McCarran in Las Vegas and in New York at JFK tower and New York Center, which oversees 270,000 square miles (counting the oceanic) and is the busiest in the U.S. ZNY went to what’s called ATC Zero; no services available. That’s a new term to me. It’s explained in this ATC emergency contingency plan.
The FAA didn’t connect the dots directly on New York Center. It said a trainee tested positive for COVID-19, but that the Center shut down for an hour for “staffing issues.” But it said the three towers were closed because of COVID-19 confirmed cases. In downplaying the impact of these closures, the FAA said in a statement that, “The air traffic system is a resilient system with multiple backups in place.”
Maybe so, but Midway seemed the hardest hit with Southwest reverting to skeletal service there after canceling dozens of flights. And the pilots showed no small bit of resilience themselves. Improbable as it seems, the airport reverted to Class E status with pilots required to self-announce, just as we do when flying the pattern at Cowplop Muni.
And so they did. I listened to a bit of the tower freq—now CTAF—on liveatc.net and was both amused and inspired to hear these pilots revert back to their raisin.’ It’s quite odd to hear a Southwest 737 say, “Midway traffic, Southwest 1517 two-mile final; runway 4 right, Midway traffic.” And I have to say, I cheered to hear it done just the way it’s supposed to be. There’s nothing unusual about Part 121 regionals operating into airports without towers, you just don’t see them self-announcing into major terminals with eight runways.
But such is the nature of a crisis few of us saw coming at all, much less affecting aviation as it has. If there’s any plus side to the plunge in daily operations—as much as 70 percent at some locales—it’s that it makes this sort of reversion to personal agency both practical and relatively safe, although it takes some nerve. Think about taxiing out for takeoff and crossing several big runways with no ground control. (“Ummm … you’re sure this is OK?”)
If SAR-CoV2 continues to spread, I have to think we’ll see more of this sort of thing, eventually to the point of daily occurrences. I doubt if the FAA has much flexibility in closing a facility under these circumstances, but it may eventually have to find some if the crisis lingers.
Meanwhile, to everyone involved, you’re doing good. Keep on. This won’t last forever.