To ensure the continued resiliency of the air traffic control system amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the FAA is planning to temporarily adjust the operating hours of approximately 100 control towers nationwide. Making these adjustments allows for continued safe operations throughout the national airspace system while minimizing health risks to our workforce.
These facilities have seen a significant reduction in flights, especially during the evening and nighttime hours, since the pandemic began. 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.
Most of the towers are historically closed at night, during which time the radar facility with oversight assumes the airspace. The FAA expects the adjustments will not have any operational effects. The agency plans to begin adjusting facility hours later this month.
The FAA will continue to monitor traffic volume at all of these facilities and may make future adjustments to operating hours as appropriate.
The FAA previously took steps to limit the spread of COVID-19 in air traffic control facilities by establishing separate teams of controllers that stay together throughout the duty week.
Q1: How did the FAA decide on these operating hour adjustments?
A: The FAA has seen a significant reduction in traffic at these facilities and reviewed a number of factors to determine where adjustments were most appropriate and could be implemented while maintaining safe and efficient operations. Criteria considered included: hourly aircraft counts and safety during non-towered times; air carrier, air taxi, and special operations; ability of the workforce to social distance and reduce exposure; savings of supplies; and infrastructure constraints. The FAA will coordinate with stakeholders before making any final decisions.
Q2: What is the criteria to return to normal hours or how will you decide to restore the hours at these towers?
A: The FAA will continually assess the operating environment throughout the National Airspace System (NAS). The FAA will ensure there is adequate staffing to meet traffic needs. As operational traffic counts and our resource factors associated with COVID-19 change, the FAA will make appropriate adjustments consistent with the agency’s mandate to operate the NAS safely and efficiently.
Q3: Is it possible that some of these locations will continue on adjusted hours permanently?
A: Temporary adjustments to operating hours during this COVID-19 public health emergency are not intended to be made permanent.
Q4: How will DOD/National Guard, medevac, or other specialized flights operate in these circumstances?
A: The FAA considered known special operations in selecting locations for operating hour adjustments. FAA facility operating schedules have always varied throughout the NAS. During the hours that a control tower is closed, DOD, National Guard, and other aircraft will receive services by the overlying radar facility as they do today according to existing FAA procedures. The FAA will continue to facilitate these special operations and will meet the needs of these operators.
Q5: How are you ensuring the highest levels of safety continue?
A: The FAA is working collaboratively with the aviation industry to ensure the highest levels of safety continue where the agency adjusts facility operating hours. The FAA’s safety tools and programs are fully operational and are continually monitoring the NAS. Additionally, we are working with each airport sponsor to understand and evaluate any consequences. The FAA will continue open communication and outreach with industry at all levels to ensure safety remains everyone’s priority.