As FAA workers test positive for coronavirus, are further airport disruptions expected?

Air traffic controllers and other workers at 10 airports and control facilities across the country have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

a large ship in a body of water: Three FAA technicians at Chicago's Midway Airport have tested positive for coronavirus, prompting the agency to close the control tower for deep cleaning.

Coronavirus cases at Chicago Midway and Las Vegas’ McCarran airports last week led control towers there to be closed and disinfected, forcing the delay or cancellation of hundreds of flights.

The FAA declined to say how many air traffic controllers and other personnel have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But the outbreak has caused major disruptions to the nation’s airspace, and it has the potential to cause more.

In the New York region alone, FAA personnel have tested positive for COVID-19 at four facilities, including LaGuardia and JFK International airports. New York has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the country, and public health experts predict that other regions of the country could see a rapid increase in the coming weeks. 

The union that represents air traffic controllers has pleaded with state and federal officials for more widespread testing, has asked for clearer guidance on cleaning and disinfecting control tower workspaces and has even postponed its May convention in Houston.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association union wrote its members on Sunday that “lower-traffic facilities” may need to close to ensure enough personnel are available to manage national airspace.

“It is possible, but there is not yet enough data to predict one way or another,” said John Cox, an aviation safety analyst and a retired commercial airline pilot who writes a regular Ask The Captain column for USA TODAY.

An example of a lower-traffic airport would be the one in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Cox said, whereas La Guardia would be considered high-traffic.

While commercial airlines have sharply curtailed their schedules and parked planes, air traffic controllers remain essential for keeping cargo, military, medical and law enforcement flights in the air.

Cox said the FAA is not likely to run out of personnel to manage U.S. airspace. 

“It’s not as big a problem as it could be,” he said. “If they need to, they can short staff.”

Cox said the FAA already does that at night, when there are fewer flights. He said the FAA worked around the problems in Chicago and Las Vegas.

Both airports were still able to clear a reduced number of flights for takeoff and landing. Already dealing with a steep drop in demand, many carriers simply canceled flights.

“They kind of put a makeshift system together that worked,” Cox said.

Once quarantined personnel recover or complete their 14-day isolation, he said, they’ll be able to go back to work. 

“Once the recovered people start to come back,” Cox said, “hopefully that gives us enough to keep things running.”

Last week, three FAA technicians tested positive for the coronavirus at Chicago Midway International Airport. The tower was closed for at least two days to be disinfected.

The control tower at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport also closed last week after an air traffic controller tested positive.

Southwest Airlines, the dominant carrier at both airports, canceled hundreds of flights at both airports last week.

Other locations where controllers or workers have tested positive include the air route traffic control centers in New York and Indianapolis, and smaller airports in Peoria, Illinois; Wilmington, Delaware; and Farmingdale, New York.

“Like much of the country, the Federal Aviation Administration is experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases at air traffic facilities and other offices across the nation,” the agency said in a statement Saturday. “Each disruption has a distinct impact on the air traffic system. This is frustrating and inconvenient, but is necessary in the interest of safety.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As FAA workers test positive for coronavirus, are further airport disruptions expected?

WATCH: Oakland Southwest gate agent tests positive for COVID-19 (provided by ABC 7 San Francisco)

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