As the aviation industry faces unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) sought to share insight from the FAA on how air traffic control is impacted now and in the future. ATCA CEO Peter Dumont recently spoke with Teri L. Bristol, COO of the FAA ATO, for a mid-year discussion about the state of the industry.

The impact on the industry, according to Bristol was immediate. “From an industry standpoint, we see it in traffic levels,” she said. As she looked back at the data, she saw that March 12 had “one of the highest traffic days in recent times with over 50,000 flights that day.” Compared to the numbers just one month later, after many states were in some form of shutdown, Bristol noted, “a month later on April 12, we saw just over 10,000 flights in the system. So, we can see how drastically things have changed.”

The FAA is focused now on “doing our best to ensure that we are there to support our customers while we take care of our people at the same time.” Bristol points to several efforts that are taking place:

Data to keep crews and team members safe: “One of the things that the decrease in traffic has allowed us to do is to spread our folks out,” Bristol shared. She noted that they looked at the data to determine the minimum number of people they needed on the shift, compared to traffic at the facility. “From that, we created multiple crews to create distance and keep crews sterile.” She stressed that the teams needed to stay together for consistency and to better track cases of illness. “We are not allowing folks to swap shifts because we want teams to stay together. It allows them to work several days, then take several days off, but the crews remain the same. It’s about keeping our team safe right now and not having more people in the facility than we need at any given time.”

Staying connected on best practices and lessons learned: Dumont noted that creating plans for an event that the industry never expected is hard to plan for, but that Bristol had the benefit of fostering relationships with global aviation leaders. To this end, Bristol shared how her relationships helped give insight into some best practices.

“We could see that over in Europe it was hitting harder, sooner,” Bristol recalled. “I got on the phone almost immediately with Rudy Keller from NAV CANADA, Martin Rolfe from NATS, and Simon Hocquard of CANSO to talk about the best practices. We are all pretty consistent right now in the things we are doing.” She shared that she is staying connected with her counterparts around the world. “The FAA ATO has always shared everything we’ve got when it comes to helping other ANSPs through hurricanes and now, pandemics.”

Anticipating a “new normal”: One of the toughest things to predict is how long the pandemic is going to last. Dumont asked Bristol for her thoughts on how the FAA may need to adjust how it does business and runs facilities during a period of what may be a “new normal.”

“We are already talking about what the opportunities for ‘normal’ going forward [might look like],” Bristol commented. “We don’t know how long this is going to last, so we know that we need to be prepared for this type of work indefinitely. Individuals are dealing with different situations in their home life that could impact their ability to return to the building. We are focused on increasing workforce flexibility. We will probably see a gradual return to what folks consider their more normal workplace, but that’s still yet to be determined and will take some time.” That said, Bristol doesn’t expect to see a degradation of productivity and expects to “bring people back in a gradual fashion to protect their health and safety,” she concluded.

To watch the full ATCA Mid-Year Fireside Chat, click here.