When asked how they prepare for a trip, most travelers will answer with: taking care of the airfare, travel accommodations and rental car; making sure that everyone has their passport/ID; and getting to the airport on time, among other things.
Does anyone think about the air control towers of the airports they fly out of and into?
Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) adjusted the operating hours of approximately 100 control towers nationwide, including Northeast Philadelphia Airport (PNE). This temporary alteration, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, “allows for continued safe operations throughout the national airspace system while minimizing health risks to the workforce.”
Other airports whose traffic control tower hours have been adjusted include Tallahassee International Airport, Reading Regional Airport, Palm Springs International Airport, Grand Canyon National Park Airport, Portland-Hillsboro Airport, and Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport.
In a statement, the FAA said that it “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 expects these modifications will not have any operational effects and is working collaboratively with the aviation industry to ensure the highest levels of safety continue where the agency adjusts facility-operating hours.
At PNE, flight volume is down approximately 64%. Currently, the operating hours of its air traffic control tower are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., a reduction from 17 hours a day to eight hours a day.
“The hour reduction at PNE was put into effect on May 3, 2020. Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen a slight increase in air traffic. If this trend continues, we anticipate that the FAA will take a look again at the hourly air traffic counts and consider expanding the hours of operation of the air traffic control tower,” said John Brewer, Airport Operations Manager at Northeast Philadelphia Airport. “We are not certain the operating hours of the tower will ever go back to 17 hours a day, a more realistic number would be 13 hours a day, however that remains to be seen and may not happen for six months or longer.”
It is important to point out that, even before COVID-19, the air traffic control tower hours at PNE were limited, since the airport is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Non-towered airports are much more common than towered fields. In fact, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), nearly 20,000 airports in the United States are non-towered, compared to approximately 500 that have towers.
So, how do the airports operate when their towers are closed? By reporting positions of each aircraft in the terminal area of the airport, pilots know the whereabouts and sequences of all aircrafts intending to land. So, simply put, pilots communicate with each other in order to land safely.