Air Traffic Controllers Take Swift Action When Santa Ana Winds Hit the West Coast
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
High winds and unpredictable weather throughout the American West have impacted air travel for as long as there have been airplanes. But this fall’s Santa Ana winds were unusually strong, forcing NATCA members in California, Southern Nevada and beyond to think quickly to keep thousands of air travelers flying smoothly.
Nate Pair, facility representative at Los Angeles ARTCC, said last week’s winds caused dozens of flights to be diverted from Southern California to airports as far away as Salt Lake City. Two runways at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) were shut down for debris, causing controllers there and at the command center to improvise fast.
“It’s pretty hard to land planes when the ground is covered in debris,” Pair said. “But the guys all did great.”
Mike Foote, facility representative at LAX’s control tower, said the strong winds last Tuesday through Thursday were unexpected and unusually strong close to the coast. He said airports further inland, like Ontario International Airport (ONT), often get the brunt of the wind.
“We didn’t think it was going to be as bad as it was there,” Foote said. “In general, Santa Ana winds impact us but not usually the way that they did last week.”
At ONT, the winds and the ensuing diversions caught controllers by surprise. Sylvia Ramirez, facility representative at Ontario ATCT this was the first time in her 20 years at the airport that she heard of flights being diverted to ONT from LAX because of wind.
Ramirez said the two controllers on duty Wednesday night, the busiest period of diversions, did their jobs expertly and minimized delays.
“Usually we are the ones who get hit by the Santa Anas, not LAX,” she said. “We were just told that we were getting more aircraft and the controllers handled the job great.”
Jamaal Haltom, facility representative at McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas, said he had never experienced diversions from LAX on the level that they had last week. According to information he got from Las Vegas TRACON member Anthony Borgert, the airport received a 5 percent increase in traffic based solely on diversions.
“On top of that, we were also down to a single runway because we get bad winds all the time from being in a valley,” Haltom said. “We heard that LAX was black (meaning they weren’t taking arrivals), so we knew we would have to be ready.”
Haltom said, despite the increased work capacity, his controllers performed at their highest level and without complaint. He said there were minimal delays for the planes that had been scheduled to land in LAS all along.
“It makes our job more difficult, but it’s our job,” Haltom said. “We welcome hard work, and it’s what we do.”