Updated March 19, 2020 - 6:39 pm
More than 100 airline flights were canceled Thursday at McCarran International Airport amid a shutdown triggered when an air traffic controller tested positive for COVID-19.
The Federal Aviation Administration ordered the air traffic control tower to be temporarily shut down late Wednesday after the controller’s positive test to ensure it’s a safe work environment for controllers and technicians.
The tower’s closure forced the Las Vegas airport to rely on a backup system with limited capacity, causing some airlines to cancel flights into and out of the airport.
Federal authorities said in a statement that they would begin cleaning the control tower on Thursday and that it was not immediately known how long the cleaning process would take. The tower was still closed late Thursday afternoon.
The agency said it was still working to determine how many other air traffic controllers will have to self-isolate after being exposed to the controller who tested positive.
With the tower temporarily closed, the Las Vegas Terminal Radar Approach Control assumed control of the tower’s airspace, with McCarran remaining open with reduced operationsuntil the situation is resolved.
McCarran was operating Thursday at an arrival rate of 10 aircraft per hour, down from the normal rate of 30 to 56 aircraft per hour, according to the FAA. A ground delay was in place at McCarran, slowing the pace of air traffic to a level controllers can safely handle.
Multiple airlines impacted
Online flight departure and arrival boards showed dozens of airline flights scheduled to arrive at McCarran had been canceled. Among airlines serving McCarran, it appeared that Southwest Airlines had, by far, the most canceled flights on Thursday.
Southwest, McCarran’s busiest carrier, saw more than 130 flight cancellations in Las Vegas Thursday, said Ro Hawthorne, Southwest spokesman. Southwest attributed the reduced operations to the control tower closure.
Hawthorne said the airline was working to offer “flexible accommodations for all impacted customers.”
Delta Air Lines spokesman Drake Castaneda said the carrier also saw a number of cancellations, but didn’t elaborate on the number.
“They (cancellations) were for a number of reasons, including ATC (air traffic control) tower you’re referring to as well as some broader schedule adjustments out of LAS (McCarran) as well,” Castaneda said. “The majority of today’s closures were due to the ATC tower matter, however.”
Allegiant Air spokeswoman Hilarie Grey said the Las Vegas-based airline had four flights canceled Thursday night because of the tower issues. Allegiant also saw 15 flights delayed on Thursday .
“We had six Allegiant flights affected by the tower closure last night (Wednesday), including two inbound flights, which had to divert to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, and one outbound, which could not get clearance to depart and ended up canceling,” Grey said.
McCarran didn’t have flight delay info readily available, deferring to individual airlines, but Joseph Rajchel, an airport spokesman said they’ve been averaging over 1,000 flights daily during March.
As of Thursday morning, the FAA’s website showed arriving flights to McCarran were being delayed at their point of departure an average of 1 hour and 44 minutes because of the traffic management program.
Passengers were urged to check their airline’s website, McCarran’s website and FAA’s website for the latest airport status.
The air traffic system has multiple backups in place, and the shift in operational control is a regular execution of a well-established contingency plan to ensure continued operations, the FAA’s statement said. Each airport across the country has a similar plan that has been updated and tested in recent years.
“The safety of our staff and the traveling public is the FAA’s top priority,” spokesman Ian Gregor said in the statement. “Our controllers, inspectors and others with critical safety or security sensitive roles are essential components of our national airspace.”
Chris Jones, chief marketing officer for the Clark County Department of Aviation, said all Clark County aviation facilities are being subjected to intensive cleanings to protect the public and employees.
“Clark County has been performing intensified cleanings of its spaces – terminals, hold rooms, baggage claim, and the like – for several weeks,” Jones said. “It’s common for flu season, but we’ve upped the frequency and areas given the COVID-19 situation. This cleaning involves using hospital-grade disinfectant on all high-touch surfaces around the airport, such as kiosks, escalators, door handles.”