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Airports expected to function normally despite reduced control tower hours

FAA ensures high staffing levels for big cargo hubs

The Federal Aviation Administration will begin reducing hours of operation for about 100 air traffic control towers this month, saying the move is necessary to maintain safe operations while minimizing health risks for workers during the coronavirus pandemic. 

An announcement this week doesn’t offer specific details about times and locations, but suggests the reductions will take place at night when many towers are typically closed and oversight of their airspace is assumed by a regional radar facility.

Most airports have seen a significant decrease in flights, especially during the evening and nighttime, as travel bans and stay-at-home orders caused the vast majority of people to stop flying. Airport traffic is down about 70%, according to aviation officials, with some of the lost passenger traffic being replaced by a surge in cargo flights carrying medical supplies and other essential goods for the healthcare system, e-commerce providers and manufacturers.

“Adjusting the operating hours will further protect our employees and reduce the possibility of temporary tower closures from COVID-19 exposures by ensuring enough controllers are available to staff the facilities during peak hours. It also will enable us to allocate difficult-to-source supplies where they are most needed,” the FAA said.

The agency said it doesn’t expect any operational effects and will monitor traffic volumes so it can make future adjustments to operating hours as necessary.

So far, 115 FAA employees, including air traffic controllers, technicians and managers, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

In an online video chat, Rinaldi said 43 facilities have been temporarily closed in recent weeks after positive tests to undergo full disinfecting. On Tuesday, April 21, the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center shut down for six hours overnight after a contractor tested positive. 

After a positive test, cleaning crews are sent in to do a “hospital-like sterilization,” the union head said. 

Most air traffic control facilities have separated into two or three teams so there is always a crew in waiting, ready to come into a clean environment if a positive test is detected, according to the FAA. The procedures were put in place after officials realized they can’t shut down facilities for 14 days every time someone tests positive 

Special care is made to maintain nighttime staff levels at airports with heavy cargo traffic, such as Indianapolis; Memphis, Tennessee; and Louisville, Kentucky, Rinaldi said. The Memphis air traffic center had to temporarily shut down during the first week of April, so officials coordinated with the Kansas City and Indianapolis facilities to take over the airspace and make sure FedEx Express operations there weren’t negatively impacted.

Louisville International Airport is home to the UPS global package and airfreight hub.

Rinaldi said the reduction in tower hours and temporary closures means “some efficiency is going to go, but when you’re running about 30% of normal traffic you have room.”

The reduced collection of airport fees, and passenger and cargo excise taxes, could hurt future funding of the aviation system, he warned. More than 90% of funding comes from the Aviation Trust Fund, which likely will be depleted in a few months, requiring FAA operations and modernization efforts to be funded directly by taxpayers through the unpredictable appropriations process.

Eric Kulisch, Air Cargo Editor

Eric is the Air Cargo Market Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at