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U.S. FAA juggles air traffic staffing as flights plummet amid coronavirus

The Federal Aviation Administration is rejiggering staffing at air traffic control centers to respond to the dramatic falloff in flights and to reduce the impact of coronavirus cases.

U.S. airlines are parking hundreds of airplanes and canceling tens of thousands of flights as a growing number of states issue stay-at-home orders and government agencies urge people to avoid non-essential travel.

The FAA has reported positive coronavirus cases at 15 U.S. facilities and some have forced the temporary closures of air traffic control towers, including at Chicago Midway and Las Vegas airports, that resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of flights.

An FAA flexible schedule agreement said all air traffic facilities would divide personnel “into the maximum number of crews possible, with each crew being greater than or equal to the identified daily minimum staffing number.”

Employees within each crew will work with the same group for the duration of the workweek to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus. The rotation schedule will continue until the emergency related to the pandemic is over.

The FAA said on Monday it had a new positive coronavirus case at Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center and was cleaning the facility.

The Transportation Security Administration said 180,002 people went through security checkpoints on Sunday, down 93% over a typical day when 2.5 million people would be screened.

FAA officials said U.S. flights were now running at about 40% to 50% of normal levels.

Airports are closing terminals and security checkpoints as travel drops. At JFK Airport in New York, one terminal has been closed and flights relocated. Starting this week, all international flights at San Francisco airport will be consolidated to a single concourse, where international flights will be less than half normal levels in April.

United Airlines Holdings Inc (UAL.O) has parked 400 planes, including at all of its hubs, while others are being parked in the desert at offsite facilities. Delta Air Lines Inc (DAL.N) said this month it would park more than 600 planes.

A March 26 FAA memo to carriers said “parking on runways should be avoided to the extent practicable due to the potential increased risk of runway incursions.”

The FAA said that “some airports have already begun parking on runways and therefore it is imperative that operators and flightcrew minimize the risk.” Carriers are looking for room in part because the FAA noted that some carriers were parking up to 50% of their fleets

But the FAA noted that some carriers parking up to 50% of planes that “some airports have already begun parking on runways and therefore it is imperative that operators and flightcrew minimize the risk.”