NATCA Members' Giant Effort Ensures Safe Super Bowl Traffic
Friday, February 10, 2012

Teterboro ATCT

Indianapolis International Airport

Just like the 45 Super Bowls that preceded it, Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis ended in regulation, this time with a New York Giants victory. Yet there were still plenty of NATCA members both in central Indiana and across the country working overtime to make sure that fans could get in and out of town safely and in a timely fashion.

Tom Thompson, the facility representative at Indianapolis Center (ZID), said operations at the TRACON Sunday night following the game were up 155 percent over normal traffic, and up 137 percent the day before, as many charter flights from the Northeast made their way to the Midwest. He said the area’s controllers landed over 1,400 additional airplanes that weekend that otherwise would not have come to the area.

Thompson said the Super Bowl presented a unique challenge to the region’s controllers. They knew thousands of small planes would be shuttling fans into town for the weekend, and most likely for only 24 to 48 hours around game time. He said Indy Center, in collaboration with the tower at Indianapolis International Airport (IND), began planning for the event over 18 months ago.

Even though the traffic was larger than expected, and larger than any other comparable event, including the annual Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 auto races, the weekend went according to plan without hitches. Indianapolis International, for example, had more than 450 departures in the four hours following the game at an airport where the norm for a busy weekday is around 60 departures an hour.

“We knew we had to be incredibly well staffed everywhere,” Thompson said. “Saturday and Sunday nights, we had lots of overtime, and shifts that normally had two people on them had eight or nine.”

A perfect storm

Kevin Brown, the facility representative at IND, said they had unique challenges compared to most recent previous host cities. There are only two runways at an airport with a control tower within 30 miles of Lucas Oil Stadium, for example, the Dallas area has nine close to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex.

Brown said they looked at New Orleans as their best example of a mid-sized market with a dearth of control towers, but their last Super Bowl was in 2002, so air traffic was down markedly in the aftermath of 9/11. Therefore, they had to plan without a city to accurately compare theirs to and they had to get creative.

“We’re not a major metro area, so we don’t have the same infrastructure as these major cities, so we had to make our own,” he said. “We created different and new departure routes, we hired new staff, and we had to do a lot of this without knowing who would be in the game or where most of the planes would be coming from.”

Knowing that the vast majority of the air traffic would come from Gulfstream Jets and the like, the Super Bowl committee set up three satellite control towers at the tiny airports in central Indiana, and brought in 30 controllers from across the country to assist.

“We were able to run these airports like real airports and it couldn’t have worked any better,” Brown said, adding that over 1,000 airplanes were parked at the four airports during the game. “They had everything they needed but radar, and they did great.”

Traffic boom back East

Traffic was calm until the weekend, a product of the game being between two eastern teams that are roughly two hours away by plane. The heaviest private plane traffic came from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and Bedford Regional Airport north of Boston.

In Teterboro, facility representative Michael Brennan said the traffic Sunday morning was “out of control busy.” Teterboro is one of the busiest non-commercial airports in the world, and traffic there on Sunday night was more than the next three busiest non-commercial airports in the region combined.

Facility representative at Bedford ATCT (BED) Alex Ward said the tower opened up its middle of the night shift for the first time “in ages.” Being a three-and-a-half year veteran of the facility, he said he had never seen a night compared to Sunday.

“We had 50 flights coming in overnight on a Sunday, which is just unlike anything we normally deal with,” Ward said. “We knew once the Pats were in the game that we were going to have a lot to deal with, but it all went over smoothly.”

Caught in the middle

The blitz of activity was not just limited to the cities involved in the game itself. The air route traffic control centers in Chicago, Kansas City, New York, Boston and Washington all saw an increase in traffic. But the heaviest was at Cleveland Center (ZOB), the region that nearly every plane from both teams’ homes had to fly through to get to Indiana.

Rick Majoris, the vice facility representative at ZOB, said the weekend was a flurry of activity for his center. Facility representative Drew MacQueen and Majoris said everything ran smoothly because of a great collaboration between controllers and management in the weeks leading up to the game.
“We all coordinated with Indianapolis and made sure that we had the right number of staff at the right times for this,” MacQueen said. “Management was receptive to us and they listened to us when we came to them the Thursday before the game and said ‘we don’t think we have enough people staffed right now.’”

Getting thousands of airplanes, and the people in them, to Indianapolis and back without any accidents, delays of note, or other problems was a testament to the hard work of air traffic controllers across the country. It was also a product of years of planning and hard work, effort that was just as great as the game all those passengers came to see.

“I couldn’t be happier with the way this all turned out,” said Brown, the IND facility representative. “It’s a real compliment to all our people here and across the country.  If you can ever say the phrase ‘people stepped up,’ then this is the perfect example.”