FAA closes Jacksonville control center for second time in 9 days

Facility that controls aircraft in North Florida & South Georgia closed for more than 2 hours

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The federal air traffic control center in Hilliard that controls air space throughout North Florida and South Georgia closed Wednesday -- the second time the center has closed this year.

The closure, which spanned from around 4:20 p.m. to 7 p.m., came after another employee tested positive for COVID-19. During that time, planes were routed around the airspace or handled by underlying facilities. The facility was thoroughly cleaned before it reopened.

All flights traveling north from as far south as Miami had to travel in a single file line along the Atlantic coastline and stay at the same altitude until they reached Atlanta’s air space. All flights traveling south had to do the same but along the Gulf Coast

Flights scheduled to travel over the Gulf Coast to Florida from places like Texas and Louisiana had to fly at much lower altitudes, which meant burning more fuel.

Several flights in and out of Jacksonville International Airport were delayed anywhere from a few minutes to 3 ½ hours. A flight to Baltimore was canceled.

The Johnson family from Jacksonville arrived at JAX thinking they were about to begin their trip to West Africa. But after Brock Johnson went to check their luggage and get boarding passes, he and his wife learned their flight was delayed due to the Hillard air traffic control center being temporarily closed due to COVID-19.

“We’re shocked because we were ready to go. We had our COVID test and everything in line, and now we can’t go,” Kerrie Johnson said.

Brock Johnson said: “It seems like everyone checking in to my right and left are hearing the same stories.”

Those people included Wai Lee, who was trying to fly home to California.

“I actually drove from Gainesville to catch the last flight to go home,” Lee said.

They also included Juliette Perrot, who was trying to fly home to Paris.

“It’s a bit disappointing because they should have emergency protocols,” Perrot said.

Wednesday’s closure was announced in a tweet by JAX.

Before Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration said personnel who work at the facility tested positive on June 22, June 25, June 26, July 8, Sept. 9, Sept. 21, Sept. 22, Nov. 19, Nov. 28, Dec. 17 and Jan. 3.

When this happened last week, 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.

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.

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