One of, and by no means the only, impact of the Covid-19 disease and its rampage through the U.S. is the effect it’s having on essential workforces, like health care professionals. Its impact also has been felt among the ranks of air traffic controllers, who often work in close proximity to one another. To its credit, the FAA seems quick to react when indications of infected employees arise, and has summarily ceased operations at affected facilities with little warning. Among facilities impacted in late March and early April were the Chicago (Ill.) Midway International Airport and the Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). The images below document others.
These kinds of disruptions have happened before, including in 2014, when a fire erupted in the Chicago ARTCC, putting the facility out of full-capacity operation for roughly three weeks. The good news is the FAA has detailed protocols for how controllers and adjacent facilities compensate, and how traffic is handled. For the most part, operations in airspace served by so-called “ATC-Zero” facilities continue, albeit with some caveats.
WHAT IS ‘ATC-ZERO’
The FAA defines “ATC-Zero” as an operational contingency level (OCL) “declared when it is determined the facility is unable to safely provide air traffic services, or traffic flow management in the case of the ATCSCC.” In turn, an OCL is defined as, “The declared level of severity of a loss of published air traffic services event, those levels being ATC-Limited or ATC-Zero, that indicates the status of published air traffic services that a facility or operational segment(s) of a facility can provide.” In other words, the services you’ve come to expect from ATC may be limited, or not available at all, at least within the area served by the afflicted facility.
Those aforementioned detailed protocols for dealing with such a situation are in FAA Order JO 1900.47F, Air Traffic Control Operational Contingency Plans, the most recent of which is dated March 31, 2020. All three FAA definitions for these situations are excerpted in the sidebar at the top of the opposite page. Note that there also are two other formal levels of distress an ATC facility may encounter. Given the way the ATC system works, there are two basic types of ATC-Zero situations: air traffic control towers (ATCTs) are one, and ARTCCs or Tracons are another.
You generally learn about facility issues during your preflight briefing, in the Notams sections. There may be aerodrome (AD), flight data center (FDC) and/or ARTCC Notams. You also can check ATC system status at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center, or ATCSCC, the FAA’s centralized source for all things about the system’s daily operation. It’s at www.fly.faa.gov/adv/advADB.jsp. That page is the latest ATCSCC advisory and includes links to other products of interest.
Time for a quick quiz: What do you call an airport when its part-time control tower is closed? You call it a non-towered airport. Therein lies the key to managing operations at a towered airport when it’s been declared in ATC-Zero status: You treat it as almost any other non-towered airport. That means using the control tower frequency as the CTAF (common traffic advisory frequency) and self-announcing your position and intentions, including ground operations.
For IFR operations, there will be three main changes. One, you’ll likely have to use your phone to obtain an IFR clearance before takeoff, although it’s possible clearance delivery may be remoted through the local Tracon. Second, there may be delays, both going and coming, especially if the weather is low. Third, pay attention to the notes sections of any terminal procedure you plan to use, as well as any associated Notams, as control tower closure may affect minima and inoperative equipment restrictions.
Keep in mind there may be pressure to cancel IFR in the air with ATC rather than wait for you to call it in by phone. Class E airspace exists when the tower is closed (unless a Class E Surface Area has been established, in which case you may be able to obtain a Special VFR clearance) and you need to be 500 feet below a ceiling with three miles of visibility to legally operate VFR there.
ATC-Alert: A precautionary notification to ensure Support Facilities in an [Operational Contingency Plan (OCP)] network are informed of a possible ATC-Limited or ATC-Zero declaration. ATC-Alerts are normally associated with, but not limited to, non-routine maintenance activities or equipment outages that eliminate backup equipment to critical systems and services. ATC-Alert declarations include (1) the condition that initiated the alert, (2) actions being taken, (3) potential impacts to air traffic, and (4) when an update is expected.
ATC-Limited: [Operational Contingency Level] declared when a combined Tower/TRACON or multi-area facility is unable to safely provide published air traffic services from one or more Options/Areas while others remain in operation.
ATC-Zero: [Operational Contingency Level] declared when it is determined that the facility is unable to safely provide published air traffic services, or traffic flow management in the case of the ATCSCC.
ARTCCS AND TRACONS
When an ARTCC or Tracon goes ATC-Zero, things can get even more interesting. Typically, only one of them will temporarily cease operations and the other one will pick up the slack. That’s what happened in 2014 with the Chicago ARTCC fire, as surrounding Tracons like Milwaukee joined Chicago’s own to manage traffic, albeit with delays. Depending on the outage, greater separation may be required, and you might not have radar service at some altitudes.
The easiest way to avoid delays or lack of ATC service when an ARTCC or Tracon goes down for a while is to not go there. Plan your flight to go around the affected airspace, and be aware that the adjoining sectors may be more saturated than usual. If you absolutely, positively have to use that airspace, be patient, expect that things will move more slowly, and you might be on your own for a while at outlying facilities. Of course, if conditions allow, don’t go IFR. Don’t expect to get workload-permitting VFR flight following services through the same airspace, though.
PLANNING FOR NOTHING
Any lack of ATC services should come up in your preflight briefing, via the previously mentioned Notams and/or ATCSCC advisories. But you might not notice them, since your EFB may not start flashing and beeping when you put in a destination and mash “Direct.” So in these times, you really need to do your homework. (That extends to local airport businesses, like FBOs and rental cars, not to mention fuel. Call ahead.)
With the increased possibility of delays, holding and mandated reroutes, carrying sufficient fuel becomes more important than ever. Intentionally stretching your fuel in these times probably isn’t the smartest thing we could do. Instead, and if you need a specific recommendation, maybe consider doubling your normal “personal minimum” fuel amount planned for your destination. Instead of planning to make a longer trip non-stop, build in a fuel stop, so you’ll be phat at your destination. And you can update your Notams, too.
An ATC-Zero declaration isn’t the end of the world, but you’ll need to pay more attention to the details. Stay on your toes. And there’s no such thing as too much fuel.