The Room Where It Happens: Inside the FAA Command Center

Drive 45 minutes west of Washington, DC, and you’ll find pastures, goat ranches, and a huge modern federal government complex rising abruptly amidst the expanse of agriculture and hills.

Welcome to the David J. Hurley Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Warrenton, Virginia, a key Federal Aviation Administration facility that is the nerve center of the National Airspace System.

No one in this facility speaks directly to the pilots. Instead, the installation is designed to ensure that the NAS performs as well as possible, day in and day out, by creating action plans for anything that could slow down air traffic. With extreme weather, space launches, military activities, VIP movements and personnel constraints making it difficult for the nation’s airspace to function smoothly, managers and industry stakeholders are working together to s ensure everyone gets on their way as quickly and safely as possible.

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The entrance to the FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Warrenton, Virginia. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE DOT GUY

“You have to have someone who sees the big picture,” Joe Dotterer, command center manager, told TPG during a visit in September.

The current command center is actually the third iteration of the installation. The original Command Center opened at FAA Headquarters in the southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., in 1970. It was later moved to Herndon, Virginia in 1994. It was from the facility of Herndon where, on September 11, 2001, the order was notoriously given to ground all civilian aircraft flying over the United States

The current Warrenton facility opened in 2011 next to the Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control – a more conventional facility where air traffic controllers actually talk to planes. This particular TRACON ensures that aircraft to and from DC area airports are safely separated.

A collaborative process

If there was one word to sum up what happens at the command center, it would be “collaboration”.

“We decide as a group what we do,” said Chris Citrola, a national traffic management official.

This means that various stakeholders are present in the room. These include the International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines globally; Airlines for America, which represents the largest US carriers; and the National Business Aviation Association, which represents business aviation.

The planning teleconference is at the heart of the command center’s collaborative efforts. This big call, held every two hours from 7:15 a.m. to 9:15 p.m., sees representatives from major air traffic facilities, airlines and others connect to discuss how to deal with space constraints air.

On the day of TPG’s visit, the NAS was relatively quiet, although there were the usual issues to deal with. A computer malfunction had led Alaska Airlines to request a ground stop of its flights – which the FAA will do when requested by a carrier – and Hurricane Fiona had just hit Puerto Rico, affecting airspace managed by the agency. In the Caribbean. The weather in Boston was also expected to cause problems later in the day, and it was determined that another call would be held to work out a plan of action in this regard.

FAA National Traffic Management Manager Chris Citrola leads the 11:15 a.m. teleconference. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE DOT GUY

Basically, the command center manages scarcity. There are only a limited number of runways available at major US airports, even on the best weather days. Add in low-visibility weather or some other situation – say, a presidential “move” that forces air traffic to stop at an airport – and this scarce resource becomes scarcer. Planes have to be spaced further apart, and the whole system slows down — or, as a last resort, shuts down. A similar situation occurs at higher altitudes when a large storm affects the number of routes an air traffic controller has for his aircraft.

Command center personnel consult demand tables like this to determine if they will need to slow traffic. FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION

In the event of weather conditions – or any other situation that could reduce the number of acceptable arrivals – officials are working with airlines and others to determine what kind of tools they will use to slow traffic. They also have to decide how much traffic should slow down, known as the “rate”.

“Tariffs are still in dispute,” Citrola said, pointing to the tension between different stakeholders at the command center that can sometimes arise.

Some of these tools — known as traffic management initiatives and sometimes referred to as “programs” — may be invisible to passengers and are the first choice of command center personnel. Flights may be slowed en route to the airport or re-routed depending on weather conditions to reduce the arrival rate at the airport. Although passengers may arrive at the gate a few minutes late, the overall disruption is minimal.

A command center staff member monitors New York area departures, left, and Las Vegas arrivals, right. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE DOT GUY

Then there are more disruptive solutions, like a “ground delay” program. This is when traffic to an affected airport is grounded at its departure airport and not allowed to depart until a specified time. A computer will allocate these times in order to achieve the desired finish rate. Then there is the aforementioned “ground stopover”, when flights to the relevant airport take place on the ground at their originating airports; they do not receive new tee times until the stop lifts. Ground stops are usually short in duration and become ground delay schedules.

More: Spaceships, storms and more reasons your flight to Florida could be delayed this summer

Command center staff always prefer something less disruptive if possible, Dotterer said. Nobody likes when people are forced to sit for a two-hour floor time limit, he noted.

A console organizes conference calls and calls to individual air traffic control facilities. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE DOT GUY

Space: a challenge for air traffic

Space launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida are far from new – they have been successfully conducted since the launch of Explorer 1 in 1958. What is new is the frequency of launches. Due to the proliferation of private space launch companies – especially SpaceX – launches are happening with regularity. In fact, launches happen so often that the FAA officially cites them as one of the causes of air traffic delays in Florida.

When a rocket is launched – from Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg Space Force Base in California or elsewhere – the airspace must close for safety reasons. The command center coordinates these airspace closures and determines where, exactly, the closure will take place. Those managing space efforts work directly upstairs from the main room of the command center in a room called the Challenger Room; it is dedicated to the seven astronauts who perished aboard the space shuttle in 1986.


Inside the Challenger Room, which opened in 2018 as regular space missions ramped up, are two rows of desks where staff monitor air traffic and rockets in real time during a launch. .

Inside the Challenger room. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE DOT GUY

“To say this is a special room is an understatement,” said Duane Freer, space operations manager at the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.

The big innovation is the FAA’s Spatial Data Integrator — a tool that arrived last year and allows the FAA to receive telemetry directly from the commercial launch operator. SpaceX, by far the most frequent launch vehicle, is currently integrated. The agency is working with other launch data providers such as Blue Origin to add them to the system. With SDI, the FAA is able to help manage launches and provide real-time airspace assistance.

Previously, Freer said, the focus was only on safety, not effectiveness. Before the FAA took a more active role, it would release range airspace – the US Air Force – in blocks. Now the FAA can actively manage airspace from the Challenger Room and take a more precise approach to airspace closures without compromising safety. What used to be an hour-long process has, in some cases, been reduced to an airspace closure of as little as eight minutes: five minutes before launch and three minutes after.

Freer spoke specifically about how the agency has worked in conjunction with SpaceX and, given the many reliable launches of its Falcon 9 rocket, has safely reduced some danger zones associated with those launches.

Undoubtedly, the space operations group based in the Challenger Room will grow in importance – and see an increased workload – as the commercial launch industry continues to grow.

At the end of the line

The FAA’s command center is focused on the big picture: its goal is to make sure everyone knows everything that’s going on and that facilities, airlines, military, and launch contractors space all communicate with each other. Without a command center, Dotterer said, the big picture would be difficult to paint.

“If you were in Los Angeles, you wouldn’t have any idea what’s going on at Boston Center,” he said.

For passengers, the command center can be somewhat unpopular: the staff there usually determine how long “air traffic control” delays your flight. However, without it, the NAS would be a chaotic place. With today’s traffic and complexity, a NAS without a command center would barely work.