FAA Flexes Controller Staffing To Handle Recovering Traffic

Chicago Midway International Airport tower
Credit: Chicago Midway International Airport

WASHINGTON—After organizing controllers into work crews earlier in 2020 to protect against COVID-19 infections, the FAA is allowing more staffing flexibility at its air traffic control (ATC) facilities.

FAA Air Traffic Organization COO Teri Bristol said Dec. 9 that recovering air traffic levels and a better understanding of how the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads have prompted the agency to “pull back” on the controller teaming concept it introduced this spring at the start of the pandemic.

“We started to go to [controller] teams initially so that we could not only preserve personal protective equipment, but also protect people,” Bristol said during the virtual annual meeting of the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA). “Traffic is coming back, so we’ve had to ensure that we can staff facilities.”

The FAA announced the first COVID-19 infections at an ATC facility—the tower at Chicago Midway International Airport—in March, and since then more than 300 employees have contracted the virus, Bristol told the agency’s NextGen Advisory Committee in November. As of early December, an FAA-updated website listed 261 ATC “facilities affected” over the course of the pandemic.

As part of its response, the FAA established a Joint Crisis Action Team (JCAT) at its ATC System Command Center in Warrenton, Virginia that coordinates remediations with operational facilities each time an infection is confirmed.

“We don’t believe that the virus is spreading in our operational facilities,” Bristol told the ATCA meeting. “We have a very rigorous contact tracing process, so if we have an employee who tests positive, [the facility] notifies us through the JCAT and we work with the regional flight surgeon. The regional flight surgeon actually assesses that individual’s contacts.”

When one or more controllers or technicians working at an ATC facility tests positive for the novel coronavirus, the FAA shuts down all or part of the facility for deep cleaning and shifts responsibility for managing the airspace to adjacent facilities.

“We’ve had situations where, with one positive case, we’ve taken out as many as 15 or more controllers in an operational facility for a period of time to quarantine,” Bristol said. “We’re seeing cases in our facilities, but by and large we’ve been able to re-group and we’ve got enough folks to support the operations.”

“We did have [a] multiple-team concept,” Bristol added. “In some cases, we had to come off of that because of the traffic demand. We had to be able to staff all of our positions in some markets.”

U.S. domestic air traffic has improved to 61% of the pre-pandemic level, with cargo activity increasing by 25%, Bristol said. Traffic levels vary by geographic market—the Dallas area is “almost back to normal,” while New York City-area airports are down by 65%, she said.

The FAA has resumed some on-the-job training of developmental controllers, depending on whether or not an ATC facility is located in a COVID-19 hot spot. The agency restarted on-site training at its ATC academy in Oklahoma City this summer. But the basic controller course has been made virtual, and there are less students overall on the campus, Bristol said. 

Bill Carey

Based in Washington, D.C., Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.