As winter comes to the Northeast, the number of flights heading south increases substantially starting around Thanksgiving, said Dean Snell, manager of NBAA Air Traffic Services.
“Historically, this traffic peaks during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday and continues through spring break in March. Operators can expect the FAA to institute airspace flow programs (AFPs), especially between Thursday evening to Saturday morning for southbound flights and Sunday afternoon to Monday morning for those returning north.”
Operators have several ways of mitigating potential delays. If possible, they should plan their flights outside of the hours when peak demand is expected. Leaving earlier on Thursday or later in the day on Friday can help southbound flights, and leaving early on Sunday will likely beat the historical afternoon traffic out of Florida to the north.
Ground delay programs are more likely to occur at Florida airports such as West Palm Beach (PBI) and Naples (APF) on the weekends, and at the popular metropolitan New York-area airports of Teterboro (TEB), Morristown (MMU) and Westchester County (HPN) on Sundays and Mondays.
“Pilots may request or file the WATRS routes southbound into Florida to avoid an airspace flow program through Jacksonville Center.”
Dean Snell Manager, NBAA Air Traffic Services
Traffic volume is not the only factor in flow control programs, Snell noted. Staffing at the air route traffic control centers along the East Coast is a factor as we are still emerging from the pandemic. To ensure that the traffic does not exceed the capacity of the airspace sectors involved and the controllers who work them, the FAA may initiate required reroutes that segregate the flight paths into Florida.
Airspace flow programs may also be implemented which “will capture flights transiting specific airspace, using a specified floor and ceiling altitude resulting in an expected departure clearance time.”
Regardless of direction, air traffic passing through can test the capacity of Jacksonville Center’s airspace, especially if a staffing issue results in combined sectors, where a controller is working an additional block of airspace. These circumstances depend on the day, traffic demand and staffing availability, Snell said.
“Typically, airspace flow programs only affect southbound flights destined for Florida. For northbound departures, Miami Center will frequently use mile-in-trail restrictions to provide larger gaps between the flights,” Snell explained. “And if 50 flights want to depart Palm Beach on Sunday afternoon, they all cannot depart in an hour, so that’s when departure delays are likely to occur.”
Like Jacksonville Center, Washington Center is a common choke point for northbound flights, especially those bound for Philadelphia and New York. Operators with appropriately equipped aircraft can avoid delays by filing the deepwater offshore WATRS routes that bypass potential delays in Washington Center airspace.
“It is not a route the FAA will assign,” Snell said. “Pilots may also request or file the WATRS routes southbound into Florida to avoid an airspace flow program through Jacksonville Center.”
Operators can mitigate AFP delays by filing early through their flight plan service provider, which has the ability to send the information to the FAA 24 hours in advance of departure, said Snell.
“The FAA bases its metering programs on known airspace demand based on flight plans in the system for a given time. Filing 24 hours early protects them from being a pop-up flight, which usually results in increased delays.”