This article has been updated to reflect NY airspace re-opening.
New York Airspace ground to a standstill Saturday afternoon, in what appeared to be the first sign of wider air traffic shutdowns around the USA. After a confusing series of FAA directives, flights already inbound for New York were allowed to continue after early diversions, and departure traffic is now also being released.
New York Airspace Confusion
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sent out a notice requesting all flights bound for New York be halted or diverted. Less than an hour later, it updated guidance to note that inbound flights could still land, but at that point many had already diverted elsewhere. In a third, separate notice, departure traffic was once again allowed to leave New York.
Staff shortages were cited as the reason and traffic has since largely resumed.
In recent weeks, temporary halts in Las Vegas and Chicago were necessary due to staff shortages after air traffic controllers tested positive for covid-19. If this level of uncertainty in a highly skilled and essential field continues, the choice may be made for the administration.
Air traffic controllers can only work specific airspace areas in many cases, and with small teams, a single covid-19 case can shut down entire swaths of US airspace.
UPDATE: it appears NYC area airports will now allow incoming aircraft. pic.twitter.com/1JdMxht6nC
— Sam Sweeney (@SweeneyABC) March 21, 2020
What makes this interesting is that it pairs with rumors this week of President Trump mulling a full stop to domestic aviation, in hopes of slowing public health concerns. Specific airlines, including American werere also mulling plans for 2-3 weeks of complete shutdown, though a bailout would make that unlikely.
Airspace has since reopened, but the confusion and botched delivery lends itself to speculation of wider moves around the United States. If air traffic continuity cannot be maintained due to staff shortages amid coronavirus outbreak, flying may become untenable.
New York Center (ZNY) has gone ATC Zero. There is a ground stop in effect for all departures for New York City area airports -JFK, LGA, EWR- including TEB and ISP.
— NYCAviation (@NYCAviation) March 21, 2020
Airlines are already reeling from virtually an entire shutdown of international flying, and a complete stand still of domestic flights would bring even more dire operational challenges, particularly after the airlines used recent years of record breaking profits to buy back stock, rather than save.