Weathering the storm – how the FAA keeps airspace on track in a crisis


It’s in times of crisis that we can really test the usefulness of government services.

Following the devastation of Hurricane Irma, the Federal Aviation Administration has mobilised to restore order as quickly as possible to ensure air safety and to aid the recovery process

On Monday, the FAA delivered a mobile air traffic control tower to Key West International Airport in Florida, after a long road trip down the East Coast by trailer from Hartford, CT.

The fully-equipped portable tower provides air traffic services for all aircraft flying in and out of Key West, currently operating as part of relief and recovery of the isolated Florida Keys in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

Along with the portable tower, the FAA has relocated controllers to the devastated area in order to ensure uninterrupted operations.

Because conditions in the keys are currently difficult, with many services still off-line, the FAA also delivered a portable trailer for the controllers which includes an air-conditioned break room and lavatories.

Before the FAA arrived, controllers were managing air traffic at the airport out of a small tent.

The FAA also plans to pack up a second mobile tower which it had airlifted to St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, last week, and temporarily relocate it to a safer mainland position in advance of Hurricane Maria.

That tower will remain on a military C-17 until the storm passes and will then head back to St. Thomas to assist with operations there.

In addition to supplying portable Air Traffic Control, the FAA has deployed special operations for managing drone operations in support of Hurricane Irma recovery.

Drones are providing rapid damage assessment in areas where access might be difficult.

The administration has authorised 173 drone operations to date, with 121 of those still active.

The FAA has warned unauthorised drone operators against flying their craft because they might interfere with legitimate recovery operations in the region and pose a risk to flight safety.

The rise of drone air traffic is one of the factors the industry will have to consider when reviewing the future of the airspace as well as the potential impact of adding personal VTOL (vertical take off and landing) aircraft, more commonly known as flying cars, to the mix.

ATC is key infrastructure. Without a rational plan for management of the airspace, the dramatic growth in aviation projected over the next 20 years will be unsustainable.

There are challenges around the world to managing the existing airspace demand, not least of which is in the busiest airspace over the US.

There is an ongoing debate over privatisation of US air traffic control infrastructure, but not everyone agrees that privatisation is a positive move.

Private pilots and business aviation, for example, represented by the National Business Aviation Association believe that privatising US ATC and handing control over to airlines would be a huge mistake.

Emerging technologies and growing travel demand will result in a crowded airspace around the globe, and satisfactory air space management is a critical infrastructure gap. Whoever aims to take responsibility for controlling the airspace must be ready to manage all of these priorities, as well as unexpected storms.

In a special series, Tnooz will follow the arguments around ATC privatisation in the US, and look technology developments in global airspace management.

It will be hard to find a story which could top the FAA’s quick and quiet action to support US airspace following emergencies of this scale.

Related reading:

Remote-controlled airport suggests tech-heavy future of air traffic control

Chris Leipelt



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