Towered airports reverting to uncontrolled fields

FAA Air Traffic Controllers have been there for us on Christmas, in the wee hours of boring weekdays, etc. Towers are shutting down, now, one by one, as coronaplague sweeps over the nation. Las Vegas, one of the world’s busiest airports (1500 operations per day), is no longer towered (US News). Here’s the NOTAM:

SVC TWR CLSD CTC LAS VEGAS APP CLR 125.9, CTAF 119.9 OR 725-600-7015. 19 MAR 17:44 2020 UNTIL 27 MAR 07:00 2020. CREATED: 19 MAR 17:44 2020

What happens when there is no control tower? That’s actually the normal condition at most U.S. airports, but not at airports where jets arrive on IFR flight plans every few minutes. AOPA publishes a good explanation of how pilots in radio-equipped aircraft (remember that some people fly antique airplanes with no electrical systems and no radios) are trained to do this. One key is broadcasting one’s intentions on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). However, it is kind of a lost art among airline pilots, accustomed to talking to ground controller, tower controller, departure controller, center controller, …, center controller, approach controller, tower controller, ground controller.

Listen to the Vegas airplanes at (“KLAS Tower (Both)” and perhaps also the ATIS to see how the tower closure is conveyed via audio). Note that the tower frequency generally reverts to a CTAF whenever the tower is closed.

Chicago Midway, 670 operations per day, is in the same situation: to hear the Southwest 737 pilots self-announcing. The NOTAM, through April 18(!).


Uncontrolled airports can be pretty busy and can handle quite a few flights as pilots separate themselves. But this depends on (1) planes being light enough not to interfere with each other via wake turbulence, and (2) aircraft not coming in and departing under instrument flight rules (IFR) in which only one plane can use the airport at a time. (The Approach controllers can’t guarantee separation if they authorize one airplane to take off and one to arrive, for example.)

[I did this exactly once during my brief airline career, flying regional jets for Delta. We were delayed for hours out of JFK (also on the potential list for a tower shutdown) by thunderstorms and the usual JFK afternoon/evening “international push”. A heavy Airbus to Europe gets priority over a regional jet to Burlington, Vermont. Currently, KBTV Tower is open 5:30 am to midnight. I don’t remember exactly when we arrived, but it was after Tower was closed and therefore we had to turn on the runway and taxiway lights ourselves (5 clicks on the microphone to activate “pilot-controlled lighting”), announce our position to other traffic (a bizjet landed shortly before we did), fly the visual approach (maneuver the plane by looking out the window), and look out for anyone else who might be on the taxiways.]

8 thoughts on “Towered airports reverting to uncontrolled fields

  1. Seems like now would be the time to fly if you’re afraid of ATC & writing down all those vectors on your knee. No worries about pilot deviations.

  2. That was wonderfully written, evoking a sense of this crisis that is both specifically informative and generally insightful. But it lacked the vulgar melodrama that you find in a novel by Michael Crichton to keep you reading

    I wonder what the fallout of this crisis will be for airline crew fraternization and the cliches that surround them . Will pilots’ wives no longer fear stewardesses as remote concubines? Are clandestine crew romances decreasing out of fear or increasing out of pent-up lust? Throw in a messy divorce and a philandering pilot and you can transform your blog a decent series on youtube or netflix.

    Only one movie (Pushing Tin) features air-traffic controllers. It’s the stewardesses that people care about, at least they did in the 1970’s:

  3. Philip,
    what is you prognosis for once more airports will become untowered? Should we expect massive cancelations for scheduled flights? Would pilots stop flying after first collision in the untowered airport?

    • Form the article in US News linked above: “ Southwest Airlines, one of the biggest carriers at the airport, said it had canceled 230 flights because of the closure.”

  4. Indianapolis Center (ZID ARTCC) has been having issues today
    “The work areas were vacated Thursday night, but the center remains open and operational,” the Federal Aviation Administration said Friday. “Flights through the airspace handled by those sectors were rerouted as part of a longstanding contingency plan to ensure continued operations.”

  5. Would it kill the FAA to write NOTAMs in full words with upper and lower case? By now, they could just skip from Baudot code directly to Unicode, and forget the whole ASCII thing ever happened.

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