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Update: ATC personnel test positive for coronavirus at two major airports

Editor's note: This article was updated March 20 to include reports of coronavirus-related service disruptions at additional FAA facilities after those at Midway International Airport in Chicago and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

The coronavirus pandemic has added air traffic control snafus to its growing list of ramifications after several air traffic control technicians tested positive for the virus at Chicago’s Midway International Airport and a controller tentatively tested positive at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

On March 19 a notam for the Midway control tower’s closure and Class C service unavailable remained in effect with an expected end date of April 18. Operations were scaled back. A temporary flight restriction limiting operations to arrivals and departures, law enforcement, firefighting, active air ambulance flights, and operations necessary for safety or emergency reasons was in effect until March 26.

“The airport remains open and operations will continue at a reduced rate until the situation is resolved,” the FAA said in a statement carried in a news report. “The air traffic system is a resilient system with multiple backups in place. This shift is a regular execution of a longstanding contingency plan to ensure continued operations. Each facility across the country has a similar plan that has been updated and tested in recent years.”

The agency emphasized that safety of staff and travelers “is the FAA's top priority.”

Before the TFR was issued, AOPA had recommended that general aviation pilots avoid flying to Midway “except for essential flights,” said Rune Duke, AOPA senior director of airspace, air traffic, and aviation security.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association called for the FAA to close the tower during disinfecting “according to appropriate public health standards.” NATCA requested to review “the cleaning protocols and materials used,” and asked that the FAA “coordinate with the local health authority and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” to test all aviation safety professionals who work at Midway’s control tower.

“NATCA is adamant that the testing must occur immediately and is hopeful there will be no additional COVID-19 infections. We are encouraged that the FAA is pursuing the rapid testing of all personnel at MDW Tower,” the labor union said.

In Las Vegas, the McCarran International Airport's control tower was closed during inspection and cleaning to assure a safe working environment; a local news report said an air traffic controller had "potentially tested positive" for the coronavirus. Class B service was unavailable until March 27 with flight operations limited and alternate procedures in effect, according to a notam. A TFR with a five nautical-mile radius to 3,000 feet agl was in effect with an end date of March 27. The FAA was working to determine how many air traffic controllers would have to self-isolate after being exposed to the individual who tested positive for coronavirus. AOPA received an independent report that numerous individuals had been exposed and that staffing shortages could persist. The terminal radar approach control facility remained operational. Pilots are urged to check notams for any revisions to procedures or the TFR. 

AOPA remains in constant communication with the FAA to address the challenges and operational impacts of the coronavirus. “We encourage pilots to checks notams and air traffic delays before any flight,” Duke said. “As this situation demonstrates, there is the possibility of unexpected and short notice impacts from the virus, and we are working with the FAA to mitigate issues to ensure a functional and efficient airspace system through this challenging time.”

News outlets said Southwest Airlines, which has a base at Midway, was hardest hit by the operational changes there, with some arriving flights diverted to other cities. Flight diversions were also reported from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Security, COVID19

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