Friday, March 27, 2020

May you live in interesting times

Today was supposed to be my final day as an air traffic controller. After twenty-eight years of entertaining the pilots, the six-day weeks and rotating shifts had gotten old. While I hadn't planned on leaving early, my enthusiasm for the job had morphed into exhaustion. At the last minute, an unexpected shift swap arrangement gave me hope that I could make it through the end of the year.

Then the COVID-19 virus situation got serious. New York and California both put out "Stay at home" orders. Several air traffic facilities had to curtail services when personnel were diagnosed with the coronavirus. Last time I mentioned some of the accommodations that the FAA was using to handle the developing situation. Since then, things have changed almost daily. As I write this, the US now leads the world in coronavirus cases. Traffic at LAX has plummeted; yesterday we barely broke a thousand operations for the entire day. If not today, then tomorrow we'll see our first three-digit day.

The staffing at most FAA air traffic facilities has been trimmed to minimum numbers so that we are able to allow more space between controllers as they work. We're also going to alternating schedules so that we won't lose the entire workforce in a facility if one controller comes down with COVID-19. In order to minimize the opportunities for cross-contamination, controllers are being scheduled in groups that are consistently together, while other groups are being held on a sort of ready reserve. Thus, while we may still have to sanitize the facility, there will be another group of controllers available to keep things running while the first group goes into isolation/recovery. There's even another group on reserve in case that group gets sick. I don't know how long we'll have to work under these conditions, but we'll be here for the airplanes that are still moving.

And there are still airplanes moving. Passengers are few and far between, but while the seats may be empty the cargo holds are not. Airlines often have to work the balance of passengers versus cargo. That's probably not a problem right now. Passengers are higher profile, but often the cargo pays better. Freight is definitely still moving. All those N-95 masks and ventilators have to get delivered. Oh, and the toilet paper too.

The airport is trying to take advantage of the traffic slow-down to get more airfield construction projects done. We've had various runway and taxiway closures and there are going to be more. Work on the MSC continues apace, and we're expecting the north end to open later this year. Most of the glass is in at Terminal 1.5. Concrete is being poured at Gate 131. More cranes are working on the people mover in front of the TBIT. Another crane is about to appear between Terminals 4 & 5. Here's the latest photos:

A couple of other shots:

Ladies and gentleman, this was supposed to be a non-smoking flight

Friday, March 20, 2020

Thoughts on COVID-19

Just about the only topic in the news this week has been the growing Coronavirus pandemic. Los Angeles reported its first cases earlier this month, and now we have hundreds. As I write this, the state of California is in its first day of a state-wide "stay at home" order. Traffic on the roads is lighter than normal, although it is surprising just how much there still is.

Not surprisingly, traffic at LAX is down too. While we've only begun to see the flight cancellations, our traffic count for the last few days is already a couple of hundred operations less per day than the same time last year. Normally we would be in the midst of the spring break rush, and it had just started to build last week when the coronavirus situation started to get serious in the US. By April, I expect that every day is going to feel like Thanksgiving or Christmas day at LAX, when we run really low numbers of aircraft.

So far, the FAA is playing "catch up" as the situation evolves. While we have contingency plans, this is outside the imagination of most of our bureaucrats. So far, four FAA facilities across the country have been hit with some sort of exposures reported. The FAA administrator is in self-quarantine after a meeting with a Florida congressman who was later found to be positive with the coronavirus. At LAX, we haven't allowed any outsiders into the building since last week. Most of our administrative people having been staying home this week. All meetings, workgroups, and training activities have been postponed or suspended. In order to allow our controllers to maintain "social distance" while working position, some positions are being combined up. This shouldn't pose any problems since the traffic volume is down and is expected to diminish further. All of this is on top of the usual stuff like extra cleanings and lots of sanitizer and gloves.

Not much rideshare action: the virtually empty Uber & Lyft lot.

Meanwhile, the airlines are bracing for dire times. The big three -- American, Delta, and United -- have all announced drastic cutbacks in their schedules. Each of them have said that hundreds of aircraft are going to be parked, some probably forever. So far I've heard of two regional airlines in this country that have announced that they will be ceasing operations permanently. Another one already has in Britain. I think it's safe to say that the worldwide pilot shortage has just ended, and there's no urgency for Boeing to get the B737 Max back in the air anytime soon.

But enough of the gloom and doom. This country has the safest air traffic system in the world, and we're not going to let the coronavirus change that. Construction at LAX continues apace:

We've had several rainy days lately; here's a photo sequence from one of them:

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

An ill wind blows

One advantage of having a 200-foot crane right outside our window on the north side of the control tower is that it has a flag mounted at the top. This flag is much easier to see from the tower than the windsock between the runways. But, as you can see in these photos, the flag is blowing the "wrong" way.

For reference, this is what it's "supposed" to look like:

LAX operations can generally tolerate as much as ten knots of tailwind, but earlier this week we had unforecast strong northeast winds gusting well over twenty. Pretty soon, this happened:

A line of departures taxi down Runway 25 Right on their way to Runway 7 Left

Whenever possible, we try to plan ahead for the times when we have to turn the airport around. This involves LAX tower, Southern California TRACON, and Los Angeles Center, along with weather forecasters. The weather folks try to give us a time frame when the winds are likely to become unfavorable, and the various air traffic facilities try to find a spot in the expected traffic flow around that time when we can reverse the flow of aircraft in and out of LAX. This is no small undertaking, as all of the other airports in the region are affected by what the traffic flow is doing at LAX.

But it doesn't always work out that way. Monday evening was one of those times. The weather service insisted that there were not supposed to be strong northeast winds, but the tower was definitely reporting winds far beyond the usual limits for west operation. First we had wind shear reports. Then several aircraft refused to land, several more refused to even accept approach clearances, and still others refused to take off, all due to the winds. So with no real opportunity to pick a good time, we had to do a "battlefield turn" - we're turning the airport, right now. Hurried coordination with approach control to determine who the last west arrivals will be, while the ground controllers scramble to move airplanes from one end of the airport to the other. Extra flight data and clearance delivery positions are opened up to handle all the flight plan revisions. Meanwhile, LA Center is putting aircraft into holding and assigning alternate arrival routes while they wait for approach control to start accepting inbounds. The impact spreads outward across the country, as aircraft still states away start being slowed or held to give the approach control and tower time to get the airspace cleared and the aircraft flows reoriented. To compound the problem, LAX isn't able to handle as many aircraft per hour in an east traffic flow as we can when we're west traffic. This is primarily because we don't have adequate runway exits for east operations. The resulting slowdown can quickly become a national flow control program.

A United B787-10 Dreamliner exits Runway 7 Right after landing

And then, not two hours later, we had to do it all over again when the winds shifted back to the west. At least one lucky trainee got to work both turn arounds. Never a dull moment!

Speaking of trainees, we have three less than we did a month ago. Congrats to CH, SS, and TG, who have all successfully completed their training. Way to go!