At the FAA command center, working around the clock to keep holiday flights on track

WARRENTON, Va. — It was early this morning, and trouble was already brewing in Florida. Storms stationed over the state, creating a risk of flight delays as the busy Thanksgiving travel period intensified.

For workers at the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control system command center in Warrenton, an hour outside Washington, it was familiar territory. Storms in Florida. Fog in San Francisco. A special event in Las Vegas that brought more private air traffic to the city. The scenarios were familiar, but managing tens of thousands of flights each day depends on what’s happening in the nation’s skies.

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The Virginia facility is the nerve center for the nation’s air traffic controllers, whose work will intensify as holiday air traffic peaks Wednesday, the busiest day for flights during what is expected to be the third-largest travel period. busiest Thanksgiving, according to AAA. The demands on U.S. airspace come after federal transportation officials said in recent days that despite the much-publicized labor shortage and passenger frustrations, they were prepared to take on the hordes of travelers heading to the airport.

In his first public appearance as the new FAA administrator, Michael Whitaker said this week that the agency is increasing the number of routes available for commercial aircraft, including those typically reserved for military use. Commercial space launches have been suspended and commercial flights will be given priority over private jets.

The FAA estimates it will handle nearly 400,000 flights over nine days centered on Thanksgiving, while the AAA estimates more than 55 million people are expected to travel at least 50 miles from home, mostly by car. The Transportation Security Administration plans to screen 30 million people over a 12-day period that began Friday.

“This holiday season is estimated to be marked by some of the busiest travel days in U.S. history, building on an already record-breaking summer,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Monday , noting that airlines this year recorded their lowest flight cancellation rates in 2017. five years.

The near-record number of vacationers on Thanksgiving is a test for an industry whose rapid recovery from the pandemic has led to significant rates of cancellations and delays. After a difficult restart, airlines adjusted their schedules and hired tens of thousands of employees to replace those who left, a move that coincided with a decrease in canceled flights.

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The FAA has made less progress in strengthening its workforce. Training for new air traffic controllers has been stalled by the pandemic, exacerbating staffing shortages at key facilities and forcing airlines to reduce flights at New York area airports. The agency also remained without a permanent leader for 18 months, until Whitaker was confirmed in October.

At a Senate hearing this month, Jennifer Homendy, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, warned that the aviation industry must take urgent action following a series of plane near misses this year. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who chaired the hearing, said the incidents were a sign of a system under strain.

With Whitaker now at the helm, the FAA says it is tackling problems that have led some to question its reputation as the world’s premier aviation safety regulator. The agency announced plans last week to increase recruitment and retention of air traffic controllers after a report warned that the FAA’s reliance on outdated technology and overtime to staff traffic control facilities air was eroding security.

The agency also formed a committee to develop recommendations for pilots facing mental health issues after an off-duty pilot was charged last month with trying to shut down the engines of a commercial flight.

In the short term, the priority of air traffic control personnel is the safety of traveling travelers during the holidays. Most decisions about handling this traffic will be made at the FAA facility in Warrenton, the only one of its kind in the country.

If the national airspace is a symphony, said Jeeja Vengal, air traffic manager at the command center, “the command center is the conductor.” She said its system overview allows traffic management specialists to identify potential choke points and develop plans to prevent the effects of weather conditions, equipment failures or other problems to spill over into the rest of the national airspace.

The work takes place in a cavernous room inside a two-story brick building – much like a high school gymnasium, minus the bleachers and basketball hoops – where nearly 100 FAA employees oversee operations across the country to identify hot spots. Six giant screens line the front of the room, displaying system maps and other key information. Recently, one focused on Florida, where blue, green and yellow spots indicated storms, while another focused on the Dallas-Fort Worth area to monitor weather conditions and work likely to affect flights. An American flag hangs on the back wall.

In the command center, there was a constant hum of conversation, punctuated by radio shouts and telephone ringing. Every two hours, from 7:15 a.m. to 9:15 p.m., system-wide planning meetings were scheduled.

The planner in charge began by registering with FAA facilities across the country, as well as each airline. His fast, clear and precise performance could rival that of the most experienced auctioneer.

“Let’s go to Miami,” he said. “Miami, hello.”

Attention then shifted to Minnesota, where minutes earlier a ground delay had been put in place to manage the effects of high winds. Minnesota said the strategy was working.

“The ground delay schedule looks good,” the planner replied. “All the way to Texas.”

“American Airlines, any concerns? »

Hearing nothing, he flew to the West Coast to check in at Oakland International Airport. Around 2:30 p.m., a group began working on a plan for the next day.

According to data provided by flight tracking site FlightAware, the day passed without major problems: 0.2% of scheduled flights were canceled, while 14% were delayed by an average of 44 minutes.

But with forecasters predicting rain and possible snow starting Tuesday across much of the eastern United States, the other days around Thanksgiving could prove trickier.

Forecasters with the Capital Weather Gang said the storms could create delays before sunnier conditions arrive Thursday. Buttigieg said drivers should check road conditions in advance, while those planning to fly should check with airlines before leaving for the airport.

“While we don’t control the weather, we are doing everything we can to ensure flight safety and keep cancellations and delays to a low level this Thanksgiving,” he said. “We want the airspace to operate as efficiently as possible. But our first mission is always safety.

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