Flights delayed as FAA controllers test positive for COVID-19

Some centers have had multiple closures, adding yet another hurdle to an industry struggling to regain travelers’ confidence in the wake of the pandemic

A Delta Airlines jet takes off behind the air traffic control tower at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas in August 2019.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A Delta Airlines jet takes off behind the air traffic control tower at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas in August 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 7, 2021 at 7:00am

Nearly 300 air traffic control centers nationwide have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to flight delays as the facilities are temporarily closed for cleaning.

Some centers are repeatedly grappling with such closures, adding yet another hurdle to an industry that has struggled to regain travelers’ confidence in the wake of the pandemic.

The virus hit hardest in November and December, according to Federal Aviation Administration data: In November, 141 facilities reported at least one case of an employee testing positive. In December, 122 did. Some centers reported multiple cases in the same month or cases during both months.

The infections have a real-world impact: On Monday, the FAA had to close the airspace over Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport after a controller tested positive for COVID-19 at the Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility, which handles traffic inbound to that and other nearby airports. 

The cleaning caused some ground delays, according to local news reports, and controllers from that facility worked from the center tower at Dallas-Fort Worth International while the cleaning was taking place. It was the fifth positive test that the facility has seen since April 1.

Temporary closures

Also Monday, the FAA temporarily closed the air traffic control facility in Jacksonville, Fla., from 4:20 p.m. to 6 p.m. for deep cleaning after a worker there tested positive for coronavirus, also causing some ground delays.

As of Jan. 5, 24 U.S. air traffic control facilities reported that someone on their staff has tested positive for the virus during the month of January.

The Jacksonville and Dallas-Fort Worth facilities are among 292 that have seen personnel test positive for the virus since the pandemic began, according to the FAA database, and the most recent outbreaks come as travel, just 39 percent of what it was in 2019, is finally beginning to show a slight uptick, according to Transportation Security Administration checkpoint data.

Positive tests, which necessitate a thorough cleaning of the shared workspace, have the potential to cause delays or cancellations. But the FAA said it has worked to create “a robust contingency plan” for every air traffic control facility to minimize the impact of employees testing positive, rerouting flights around the airspace or having other air traffic control facilities handle those flights.

“We staff each facility in the National Airspace System to keep traffic moving as safely and efficiently as possible,” said Doug Church, a spokesman for the controllers’ union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “But we are not immune from this virus, particularly in the very close quarters in which our members work and are unable to safely distance despite the mandatory use of face coverings.”

The pandemic, he said, “has affected every aspect of life, not just in the United States but the world. Aviation has been devastated.” 

Hard-hit areas

Some facilities have been hit harder than others. Jacksonville International Airport, for example, has seen staffers test positive 11 times since July 4, with the most recent case reported Dec. 15. The Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center, where the most recent case was detected, has seen 11 cases since June.

And since June, while the Dallas-Fort Worth Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility has seen six positive tests, the nearby Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center has seen its personnel test positive 24 times.

The latter center handles Dallas Love Field, one of the largest airports for Southwest Airlines, and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, a large hub for American Airlines. The Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center also has oversight of portions of air space in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and elsewhere in Texas.

Similarly, the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center has seen 25 positive tests beginning March 29 of last year; the most recent positive test occurred Dec. 30. 

There are three types of air traffic control facilities: Towers, which are within five miles of an airport and generally handle planes arriving and departing within eyesight; Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities, or TRACONs, which are within about 30 miles of large airports to handle traffic moving to and from higher altitude; and Air Traffic Control Centers, which handle the highest altitude and which often deal with multi-state areas.

Back-up plans

Regardless of its type, every air traffic control facility has a backup plan in case it has to close, according to the FAA. That’s been the case long before COVID-19. 

An agency spokeswoman said the FAA generally schedules cleanings for overnight hours and has learned to reduce the time facilities remain closed — from six to eight hours down to as little as 1.5 hours. The agency now uses contractors who have defined, clear scopes of work, the spokeswoman said.

Nationally, air traffic control facilities reported few cases during the first few months of the pandemic; the high through September was 86 reported cases in July. That has spiked as holiday travel returned. 

In the Washington, D.C., area, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport reported one positive case on May 1. Dulles International Airport reported three positive tests while Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport reported two positive tests. The Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center, which oversees the region’s air space, reported 12 positive tests, most recently Jan. 3.