The Federal Aviation Administration briefly suspended air travel to all NYC and Philadelphia airports today after multiple air traffic controllers tested positive for COVID-19. ATC staff has been subsequently reduced, AP reports. The initial directive had a “Medium” potential for extension but was lifted roughly half an hour later.
JFK sees roughly 60 million passengers and almost 450,000 airplanes depart and land per year, and combined with LaGuardia, Newark, and Philadelphia, this means that airports handling roughly 450,000 passengers per day were completely closed for half an hour.
The relatively short length of time and high number of canceled flights that came in the wake of previous positive COVID-19 tests for air traffic controllers means that the overall impact of the disruption will not be on the same scale as a business as usual day, but a complete ground stop across that many large airports is still a big problem for an airline industry that is already in extremely troubled times.
Even though this ban was temporary, it’s been seen as increasingly likely that there may be a full ground stop for all American airports in the near future to help slow the spread of the pandemic. According to a senior administration official CNN spoke with:
Planes were flying 85-100% full pretty much across the board at the beginning of this year, and now they are closer to 50% full and in many cases much less. Airlines need planes to be about 65% full to break even and make the flight worth flying.
With most flights likely unfilled to the point they are not even worth the cost of flying them, some airlines have already been forced to completely shut down as early as next month. If traffic reductions continue, it’s possible an official full grounding of all planes may not need to be implemented, as the airlines may simply stop flying on their own.