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ATC Zero Events

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The Issue:

During this time of national emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, air traffic control remains a critical service to ensure safe and efficient operations. However, the virus is also affecting ATC personnel, which has resulted in reduced staffing and even required some facilities to have unplanned closures (ATC zero). In the past month, several busy airports have been affected by tower closures, including Chicago Midway International Airport, McCarran International Airport, and John Wayne Airport-Orange County. In addition, the New York and Indianapolis air route traffic control centers have been impacted, among others.

AOPA and the AOPA Air Safety Institute remind pilots to check state and local orders before flying, and if flying to another state, to check for quarantine and shelter-in-place orders that could have an impact upon landing. If your flight is essential, thorough preflight planning during this dynamic situation is of the utmost importance. If you will be flying into an airport or airspace affected by an ATC facility that has an unplanned closure or that is providing limited services, be prepared for possible delays, airborne holding, diversions, reroutes, and limited support for IFR pop-ups.

You can still fly to these airports and through affected airspace; however, do so only if it is essential. For example, you could complete normally planned flights to an affected airport, but don’t do touch and goes at one. Air carrier, cargo, and other operations are likely to continue but without support from ATC to ensure aircraft sequencing and separation.

Prior to flight:

  • Conduct a thorough preflight by checking notams for destination, departure, and alternate airports, and also check notams for centers you will be flying through. The FAA provides a website listing ATC facilities affected by COVID-19, but it is updated infrequently and does not replace notams.
  • The FAA has previously issued temporary flight restrictions when an ATC zero event has occurred. Although this is not always the case, pilots should still ensure they are checking closely for any relevant TFRs along the route of flight.
  • For a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport, pilots should check for any known traffic delays. These delays are published on the Air Traffic Control System Command Center website under the products list. 
  • If flying in an area where a tracon or center has limited or curtailed operations, be prepared for potential delays and reroutes. Fuel and plan accordingly for what can be a dynamic situation.
  • Due to reduced staffing at many ATC facilities and potentially high workload, practice approaches and VFR flight following may not always be available.

Flying into an airport with an unplanned tower closure:

  • Review procedures for nontowered airport flight operations as published in Advisory Circular 90-66B ahead of the flight. For IFR flights, pilots should note that circling approaches require left-hand turns unless the approach procedure explicitly states otherwise.
  • Review the Air Safety Institute’s Operations at Airports Safety Spotlight for additional guidance.
  • Consult the chart supplement for published traffic pattern altitudes, traffic pattern direction, frequencies, and other information relevant to arrival or departure. A notam may be published that supersedes this published information. Be cognizant of airports with noise abatement procedures.
  • Follow best practices and use the advertised active runway and avoid simultaneous use of crossing or multiple runways. Be extra vigilant when crossing any runway and be sure to communicate when doing so.
  • Communicate with other aircraft operating at the airport. If any doubt exists, use plain language to ensure safe operations are taking place. Review the Air Safety Institute’s Radio Communications and ATC Safety Spotlight.
  • Flight training and other nonessential flights should be avoided at these locations. Do not take advantage of the unusual situation to conduct sightseeing operations. Air carrier traffic and other traffic are likely to continue at what is normally a busy and controlled airport, and safety is enhanced by limiting essential operations to arrivals and departures.

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Posted on April 1, 2020