By Greg Wallace and Pete Muntean, CNN
A new cleaning regimen is cutting back on flight delays as the skies grow busier this summer. But the new procedures aren’t for planes or even airport terminals — they’re for air traffic control towers.
The cleaning methods are being instituted in Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control towers and facilities around the country, federal officials tell CNN. The aim is to reduce the need for these behind-the-scenes employees who route aircraft to have to clear out after a colleague tests positive for coronavirus.
Covid cases among air traffic employees can ground flights, arrivals and departures to a halt. Employees at the busy New York Air Route Traffic Control Center have tested positive on more than two dozen occasions.
The new procedures have helped avoid more than 165 such “ATC zero” incidents, the FAA says. Increased access to Covid vaccines has likely also reduced the number of controllers falling ill.
Earlier in the pandemic, the FAA frequently closed facilities once it learned of a coronavirus case. A cleaning contractor would come in to treat the facility, and controllers working at the time were required to leave to avoid the odors of the cleaning chemicals.
This sometimes presented serious inconveniences. A March 2020 positive test for two employees, for example, led to a daytime ground stop for airports near New York City. And when a contractor tested positive the next month at the busy Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Virginia, the agency said it was forced to re-route some planes.
New cleaning protocols
The new daily cleanings are scheduled for the lowest-traffic periods, and they use non-toxic chemicals approved by the EPA. That allows controllers to continue working nearby.
In an exclusive interview, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told CNN the change “has really kept the supply chains running and it’s allowed the aviation system to continue to function effectively.”
“We’re the most global society in the world,” Dickson said. “It’s been important throughout, really, to avoid any kind of shutdowns.”
The FAA said the new process means 120 high-priority ATC facilities are cleaned every day, even when no coronavirus cases are detected among the employees.
“They may have to move around the control room a little bit, but they’re able to work as these, as these cleanings are going on,” Dickson said, which means the airspace or airport can remain operational, avoiding flight delays, cancellations and re-routing. Changes can lead to missed connections for passengers and checked baggage, he noted.
The procedure is used at the busiest airport towers, approach control facilities (known as TRACONs) that handle flights inbound to busy areas, and the air traffic control centers that work with planes crisscrossing the country at cruising altitudes.
“It’s been a huge improvement,” Dickson said. “Each one of these closures can generate quite a bit of disruption to the system. For example, if one of our high-altitude centers is closed for a couple of hours, there are hundreds of flight cancellations (and) delays.”
The union representing FAA air traffic controllers said in a statement to CNN that it believes the procedures “keep our employees and their families safe.”
National Air Traffic Controller Association President Paul Rinaldi noted air traffic controllers are essential workers and during the pandemic “have continued to go to work each day, keeping our system operating safely and efficiently and continuing the vital transport of people, cargo, and the Covid-19 vaccine. The type of work we perform does not allow for social distancing and requires shared workstations.”
The nation’s airports and skies are growing increasingly busier. The Transportation Security Administration said it screened a pandemic record 1.98 million people on Sunday, up from the low of just 87,000 last April.
Airlines are running more flights to meet the demand: 498,000 in March (the most recently reported data), more than double the pandemic-era low of 210,000 flights in May 2020, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
A normal month in pre-pandemic times saw between 600,000 and 770,000 flights, Bureau of Transportation Statistics data show.