ATC Resilience. Pilots, Too


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 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.

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  1. My company has advised our crews to carry extra fuel when possible to help deal with some of the ATC outages. One of our jets had to fly at 9000ft tower to tower through Indy center’s airspace going south when they shut down for virus cleaning. I have no problem using VFR procedures but pt135 ops specs and pt 25 airplanes and jets usually not allowed to fly enroute VFR. I don’t think pt121 is allowed enroute VFR either. And the lack of any comments to the AOPA request for the FAA to make accommodations for pilot training expiration dates makes you wonder. If they don’t approve AOPA’s request it could eventually shut down most IFR operations without the government doing anything.

    • That suspends the fuel conservation program, or so it would seem. You’re right about 121 jets, plus ops specs notwithstanding, no one can go into Class A airspace unless IFR. Part 25 jets that are operated under Part 91 only are free to operate VFR below Class A airspace. ATC will likely only get worse until this crisis has abated.

  2. There can be IFR flight with outages. I’ve had flights (IFR) where ATC told me “we’re going to lose contact with you, both radio and radar, for the next ten or fifteen minutes. Call us again on this frequency after you cross the outage.”

    • That’s just normal coverage issues, and known areas with lack of coverage. I had that all the time on Victor-2 between Seattle and Ellensburg with aircraft below 10,000′. The facility is still operational, knows about your flight, and has a reasonable idea where you are. Not the same as an ATC Zero event.

        • Nope. Nothing can change an airspace designation other than official rulemaking. NOTAMs cannot alter an airspace class. Now if the published information for a specific airspace includes such language (and I know of none, but I don’t know the all…), then that could be possible.

          Yes, I work for the FAA, and have worked in the airspace office. I am a national expert on ATC Contingency planning.

          • Please clarify why the Bradley FSDO told an assembled multitude that, when BDL’s radar goes out of service, their Class C airspace – and its requirements – go away, too. Thanks.

          • KPSP is a part time Class D airport. My home base for many years. It is equipped with ASOS, ATIS and it’s in the METAR/TAF system.  The Control Tower’s closing statement, or ATIS, reads that the tower is closed and advises that the CT frequency converts to CTAF. The ASOS minute weather transmits but it’s fixed to the closing time WX report not cycling to minute WX transmissions. I’m not sure why the ASOS minute WX is disabled but it leads to negative official WX thus the conversion to Class G after the CT closes. I kinda understand this.

            Then, researching this a bit more, I find that the current KPSP directive from JO 7400.11D converts, after normal operations, to Class E not Class G. Interesting!

            Then there’s KTRM, my present home airport, a Class E Surface Area with an AO2 ASOS, meaning an official weather source. Could you explain what to expect if the ASOS were to be under mx or out of order? Will KTRM operations be under Class E or Class G airspace regs? Or is it kinda like KPSP?

  3. Just a comment: a facility declaring ATC Zero does not cause the airspace class to change. If it was Class C before, it remains Class C, just with some published services unavailable. We cannot alter an airspace designation via NOTAM. Airspace definitions are published, and what is published cannot be altered. If the impacted facility is not a 24/7 operation, then the airspace class changes at whatever time it is published to change.

    This is something that we even have to explain to the facilities, as many thought the same way and had such language in their ATC Zero plan. If a Class B airport (LAX, SEA, ORD, etc.) goes ATC Zero, the airspace remains Class B, and the facility that assumes control (usually an overlying TRACON) will provide Class B services to the extent possible. Obviously, the TRACON can’t control ground movements.

    • I completely agree with Dan R on this. Problem now is that various government (federal and state) entities are doing things that they do not have the constitutional authority for and with most courts shutting down challenging a lot of these decisions is a little difficult.

  4. “Think about taxiing out for takeoff and crossing several big runways with no ground control. (“Ummm … you’re sure this is OK?”)”
    When I was learning to drive (was it really 55. years ago?), my father taught me, when at a stop sign about to turn left onto a busy street, look both ways 3 times, then “Go!” (Which I still do, By the way). I imagine the same applies only now looking in 3 dimensions: left, right, left up, right up, x 3 then throttle in and get it done!