ATC hours reduced and other preflight considerations

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Empty concourses are the reality.

It’s no secret that airline travel has suffered mightily during the COVID-19 pandemic. Air carriers have substantially cut schedules and we’ve even seen sad imagery depicting empty concourses and lonely airliners parked on what were once active runways. For perspective, according to recent TSA data for passenger screenings, airline travel is down about 95% (TSA publishes screening data here). 

The reality of airline travel, coupled with a decrease in pilot training and other general aviation activity, it comes as no surprise that the FAA recently announced it is reducing the hours of operations at nearly 100 control towers across the country. These changes are being made  to better align with the realities of air traffic. The reductions take effect Monday, May 4 and will continue indefinitely until air traffic demands otherwise. The complete list of affected tower facilities is available here.

While blue skies are ahead, the announcement is a reminder of additional preflight considerations required in the COVID world. Not only are ATC hours being reduced, but FBOs have also reduced hours, cut staff, and scaled back services that you may ordinarily expect. 

Also, to consider, COVID-related restrictions and protocols can vary greatly region to region and state to state – even down to local government and individual businesses. It’s important to plan ahead and gather as much information as possible to determine what services, support, and resources may or may not be available at your airports of intended use including the availability of air traffic control. Additional preflight considerations should include:

Fuel tester
Don’t forget to sample some of the fuel you just pumped.

Fuel – it would be wise to consider round-trip fuel or self-serve fueling options on your next cross-country. Perhaps make contact with the FBO to confirm hours of operation.   A phone call or email may be prudent in this situation as changes to services may not be updated in your flight planning app or online. Fuel quality can also be called into question when fuel has sat stagnant in the aircraft or in fuel tanks or trucks at the FBO. 

While there are protocols in place for FBOs to ensure consistent fuel quality, sumping the tanks on your next flight should be given renewed focus. Be thorough and take multiple samples if need be. If you do opt to take fuel from an FBO before your next flight, allow time for contaminants to settle to the bottom near the sumps before declaring your fuel load good.

Alternate airports – many of the same common-sense concepts apply to evaluating alternate airports. More time will be necessary to determine the validity of alternate airports and the availability of services should an alternate become necessary. The time for research is prior to your flight and not en-route when your attention should be elsewhere.

Sanitation procedures – We’ve become accustomed to respecting social distance and observing more stringent personal hygiene practices, but not every destination will have the supplies you may expect. Consider some additions to your flight bag or fly-away kit. You might want to take disinfecting wipes in a plastic bag for cleaning any self-serve fuel pumps. A bottle of hand sanitizer would be helpful. You may consider extra food or drinks in the likely event the airport restaurant and vending machines won’t be available.

And it would be prudent to consider a face covering or mask which are rapidly becoming an expectation if you’re not able to observe the customary 6’ of social distance.

When a control tower closes, it becomes a nontowered airport.

Prepare for non-towered airport operations – As mentioned, FAA is poised to reduce operating hours at airports across the country. There have also been numerous unplanned tower closures for deep cleaning or confirmed COVID cases. In these scenarios, you should prepare to practice non-towered airport procedures. These procedures include making your own determination of which runway is in use based on wind condition and other traffic.

Entries to the airport traffic pattern should be to the midpoint of the downwind leg, or if approaching from the opposite side of the downwind leg, entering on a midfield crosswind leg. Position announcements should be made on the CTAF frequency (usually the tower frequency following a closure). Announcements should be made when 10 miles from the airport, entering each leg of the traffic pattern, and after vacating the active runway. Avoid vague, nondescript, or non-standard transmission such as references to local landmarks or calls that invite responses like a bad Zoom meeting.

More detailed procedures for non-towered airport operations are available in the FAA advisory circular, Non-Towered Airport Flight Operations and the AIM, 4-1-9, Traffic Advisory Practices at Airports Without Operating Control Towers.

ATC-Zero – we’ve begun hearing a new term that could be with us for the short term, ATC-Zero. The term comes from an FAA Order describing ATC contingency plans and, from a pilot perspective, indicates that a facility is unable to provide services. In the case of a ATC tower facility, all of the same nontowered airport procedures apply. There have also been examples of approach or center facilities going “ATC-Zero” status. While not a regular occurrence, you should always have a plan B if required to avoid certain airspace becuase of an ATC-zero event. You can monitor ATC facilities with the potential of restrictions here.

In more positive news, there is light at the end of the tunnel. States are beginning to ease restrictions and allow businesses to slowly open. While terms like “social distance” may be with us for the foreseeable future, general aviation will be back as a much-needed recreational escape and safe, reliable transportation option.

Ed. note – we’re reminded of better times ahead and what general aviation may look like post-COVID in a recent commentary from Sporty’s Air Facts Journal Editor, John Zimmerman – AirFactsJournal.com

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It was his first airplane trip at age seven that made Eric decide to become a pilot. "While boarding the airplane, a flight attendant noticed my interest in the flight deck and urged me to go talk to the pilot. I give a lot of credit to that pilot for my career choice." He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and went on to an airline career. Eric now heads Sporty’s flight school and directs the University of Cincinnati’s Professional Pilot Training Program. In addition, Eric serves as a Captain in Sporty’s corporate flight department.