Airliners are on their own with no air traffic control at a Florida airport for 12 days after FAA staff contracted COVID-19

  • The air traffic control tower at St Pete-Clearwater International Airport in St Petersburg, Florida is closed until January 31.
  • The FAA closed the facility for cleaning after personnel tested positive for COVID-19. 
  • Allegiant Air is the main carrier at the airport that also sees high general aviation and private jet traffic.  
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The phrases "cleared to land" or "cleared for takeoff" won't be heard at St Pete-Clearwater International Airport until January 31 as the airport's control tower was closed earlier this month, even as planes continue to use the Florida airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily shuttered the facility for cleaning after an air traffic controller tested positive for COVID-19 on January 20. Pilots now have to navigate the "uncontrolled" airport entirely on their own for the time being.

These closures have become common during the pandemic but have rarely lasted for 12 days, as is the case in St Petersburg. Most cleanings take a few hours, if that, with the FAA saying they've gotten the protocol down pat to minimize disruptions. 

"During the past few months, we have greatly reduced the amount of time facilities remain closed for COVID-19-related cleaning – from six to eight hours down to as little as one to one-and-a-half hours," the FAA told Insider in a statement. "We generally schedule COVID-19 cleanings for the overnight hours."

But "staff exposure" is forcing the facility to stay closed for longer than normal. 

Ultra-low-cost carrier Allegiant Air is the primary airline at the airport serving destinations as far as Plattsburgh, New York; Bangor, Maine; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As many as 42 daily flights operated by the airline are scheduled to depart and arrive in St Petersburg during the week of the tower closure.

The Airbus A320 family aircraft utilized by Allegiant will now have to contend with general aviation without the help of air traffic control when departing from and arriving at the airport. Air traffic controllers at nearby Tampa International Airport will help coordinate aircraft under a "one in, one out" policy.

But for taxi, takeoff, and landing, pilots will have to brush up on their uncontrolled airport communication skills. 

Back to basics

Pilots are trained on how to operate into uncontrolled airports during primary flight training so for most, it's nothing that they haven't dealt with before. Aircraft talk to each other on a dedicated frequency for that airport and just have to be extra cautious by announcing their location multiple times as they approach and depart the airport, as well as constantly be on the lookout for other planes operating in the area.

Uncontrolled airports aren't uncommon as not all of the country's greater than 5,000 public airports feature a fully staffed FAA facility. But for airline pilots, it's not something they experience every day on the job, especially at an airport as busy as St Pete-Clearwater International where airliners co-exist with private jets and other general aviation aircraft. 

The pandemic, however, has forced all pilots to become reacquainted with these skills as it's standard procedure by the FAA to close facilities for cleaning after personnel test positive for COVID-19, and it's wreaked havoc on the national airspace system at times. A positive case detected at one facility can affect hundreds of flights, as was the case in December when the Fort Worth Air Route Control Center closed for cleaning in the middle of the day. 

All flights departing from airports under the facility's airspace, including Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Dallas Love Field Airport, were halted. And aircraft that were just passing through the airspace were forced to reroute around it or hold at their departure airports until the airspace was reopened. 

St Pete-Clearwater International is also far from the largest airport to have this issue as Chicago's Midway International, Las Vegas' McCarran International, and Orange County, California's John Wayne Airport have all had to close their air traffic control towers for cleaning, leaving the airports temporarily uncontrolled at times. 

New York's John F. Kennedy International experienced a similar issue in March 2020 but controllers were able to utilize a backup facility while the main control tower was closed. 

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