Flight cancellations, delays triggered by deep clean at FAA Jacksonville control center

Center in Hilliard closed from 4:30 p.m. - 6 p.m. Monday after personnel tested positive for COVID-19

COVID-19 caused delays and cancellations for thousands of air passengers in three states Monday evening.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A day after someone at the Jacksonville Air Traffic Control Center in Hilliard tested positive for COVID-19, News4Jax learned the center closed Monday evening for cleaning.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the closure was from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Aircraft were routed around the airspace or handled by underlying facilities.

As of Tuesday morning, the airport confirmed it was operating smoothly again. As of 8:00 a.m., there were no cancellations or delays.

A tweet from Jacksonville International Airport warned passengers that the closure “may cause extensive delays and/or cancellations. Travelers should check with their airlines.”

News4Jax aviation expert Ed Booth called the closure “totally unprecedented.”

“It has been open for 80 years now,” Booth said. “And as far as I can tell, and I’ve been flying around here for 43 years, it has not closed in those 80 years. So this is a historic event.”

A spokesperson for the FAA said the Hilliard facility covers flights from the panhandle to Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa. It also covers flights in Southeast Georgia and South Carolina.

Around 5 p.m. at JAX, Callie Frances and Henry White were trying to fly back to Nashville, Tennessee. They checked their flight information online before arriving, and everything looked OK, but things changed when they got to the airport.

“The lady at the counter said we have to be rebooked,” White said. “We’re rebooked for tomorrow. We’re here for the night.”

“Very frustrating,” Frances said. “I have work tomorrow and this alters some of our plans.”

Louise Avery was trying to get back to Kansas City.

“They told us we were going to be stranded here until morning,” Avery said.

According to George Winterling, retired News4Jax Weather Authority chief meteorologist, the air traffic control center first opened in December 1941 at Imeson Field -- also known as Jacksonville Imeson Airport. In February 1961, the air traffic control center moved to Hilliard. Winterling worked in the Imeson Terminal along with the U.S. Weather Bureau for five years before joining WJXT in 1962.

Apart from Sunday, the FAA said it learned of personnel who work at the facility testing positive on June 22, 25, 26, July 8, Sept. 9, 21, 22, Nov. 19, 28 and Dec. 17.

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