Flights Rerouted, Towers Closed as Virus Stresses Air Traffic

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(Bloomberg) -- Flight delays and cancellations continued to rise Friday as an airport tower in Chicago remained closed and planes were being rerouted above Indiana with the spread of Covid-19 to the federal employees responsible for the air-traffic system.

Several routes for cross-country traffic were shut by the Federal Aviation Administration after a supervisor tested positive at the agency’s Indianapolis Center, which oversees high-altitude traffic across several states. Flights were handled by other controllers at the same facility, the FAA said in an emailed statement.

The impacts of earlier virus-related shutdowns at Chicago’s Midway and Las Vegas McCarran International airports continue to reverberate across the system. More than 1,100 flights were canceled at just those two airports as of 2 p.m. Eastern Time, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware.

Southwest Airlines Co., the largest carrier at Midway, said in a statement it may have to cut flights further as a result of the tower closing.

Southwest said it is still operating four to six flights an hour at Midway. The airlines controls about 96% of the passenger traffic at Midway, according to U.S. Transportation Department statistics.

Separately, controllers at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport tower were forced to work in an alternate location Friday after a technician at the facility tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. The airport remained open and the tower reopened at 11:30 a.m. local time after it was disinfected, the agency said in a tweet.

Such disruptions are relatively routine in the air-traffic system and the FAA has long-standing backup procedures to handle them. But the actions on Friday show how quickly the potent coronavirus is spreading and disrupting critical infrastructure.

About 20% of flights at JFK were also canceled, 259 in total, according to the website. It wasn’t clear how many of the cancellations were due to the tower closing as airlines have been halting international flights in response to the virus, which has cut demand for travel.

High-altitude flights are guided by controllers at so-called en-route centers across the country, where they sit in clusters of high-definition computer screens to use radar and satellite technology to monitor aircraft. At Indianapolis Center, three work areas linked to the supervisor were being disinfected, the FAA said.

“The FAA is working with local health officials and employee representatives to determine how many personnel might have interacted with the supervisor in recent days,” the agency said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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