Unlocking The Twin Cities: FAA’s Air Traffic Nerve Center

FARMINGTON, Minn. (WCCO)WCCO is ‘Unlocking the Twin Cities’ and going behind the scene to see some cool places in Minnesota.

Flying can be stressful and frustrating, especially when there are delays and missed connections. That’s why people are hard at work in Farmington to make your trip as smooth as possible, no matter where you’re flying.

At the Federal Aviation Administration’s air-traffic control facility, nearly 300 people help more than 5,000 planes a day navigate Minnesota’s skies.

From inside an ordinary-looking office building, flight controllers are talking to pilots flying between northern Michigan, the Dakotas, Missouri and Kansas.

“Our airspace is from the ground up to 60,000 feet,” said Supervisory Traffic Management Coordinator Marcy Woodruff. “Except for those places where there’s a tower and/or an approach control, and they have their own airspace.”

Woodruff is one of the people managing the speed and spacing between planes as they fly over the Midwest.

“Our job is to get as many planes here as are out there flying and get them here as quick as they can and get them to land, but not give the airport more than they want,” said Woodruff. “Sometimes you’ll fly into Minneapolis, it’s a beautiful day, and you think ‘What the heck?’ All of a sudden you’re turning. And it’s probably because right at that time you’re here with a lot of other airplanes and we just need to slow it down.”

But it’s not just traffic to Minneapolis that this group is directing.

“We also space airplanes for Newark, which is in New Jersey, and JFK Airport and Detroit and Denver — those are busy places — and Midway.”

So, whether they’re destined for the Twin Cities or not, every flight through Minneapolis’s airspace affects every other flight in the U.S.

It’s like a gigantic game of high-stakes Jenga. And that’s never more apparent than during nasty weather.  Meteorologist-in-charge Philip Poyner works side-by-side with the controllers.

“They’re making plans two to six hours out based on what we’re actually forecasting,” he said.

Ice buildup on a plane’s wings while in flight can be catastrophic, and delays related to snow can be costly, but Poyner says that thunderstorms can be the biggest challenge, especially if they’re over a busy area.

“Over, say, the Eau Claire area. And because a lot of the jet routes and stuff tend to flow together in that region — huge, huge impact,” said Poyner.

Telling pilots where breaks in the storms are allows them to steer their planes in that direction sooner.

“We’re trying to keep the system efficient,” said Poyner. “It’s not only just telling them where the weather is, but where the weather isn’t.”

You might be wondering why these air-traffic controllers don’t actually work at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. There actually are controllers at major airports, like MSP, but they guide planes that are on the ground or have just taken off or landed.

In contrast, the people working in Farmington are responsible for planes that are travelling at higher altitudes.

More from Mike Augustyniak
  • Jim Murray

    Air traffic control was placed in Farmington in the 1950s because it was in the early Cold War and such facilities were sited in the hinterland for security in case of hostilities. And not only MSP ATC was affected.

  • MAJ

    Well written article. Thanks

  • fq

    Do all Air Traffic Controllers look as good as the one being interviewed?

  • Swamp Fox

    Mpls ATC controls its airspace zone as well as directs aircraft to MSP Approach or from MSP Departure control at the airport. When the system is working at 100% on a good day those 5,000+ aircraft passing through Mpls Center[Farmington] Airspace with choreographed ease. However, add adverse weather here in MN, Chicago, Denver, the SE US, and the East or West Coasts then the ATC really earns its pay trying to keep all planes flying safely.

    One major thing this story didn’t tell us is that the Air Traffic Control system is in need of a major overhaul and a modern technological equipment refit. The FAA operates its ATC areas at full capacity every day. 365/12. In some ATC ares the system is very stressed during peak travel hours and delays are inevitable. Couple all this with general aviation and business aircraft transits through the ATC zones you have quite a work-out.

    Next time you fly and have to wait a few minutes on the taxiways awaiting take-off think of the controllers at the airport and the ATC who work their aerial ballet to keep the system flying.

  • Marko

    It’s a great movie. (1) My hunbasd’s first comment was that it should be subtitled “Why We Fight.” (2) For me, one of the most interesting things was that I noticed 3 Muslims leaving the theater together when the film was over, 2 women in hijab and a man. My reaction, instant and at gut level, was that I felt ashamed for them. I thought that if I saw them in the lobby, I would not be able to look at them, because I would feel unsure whether they had the decency to feel ashamed and lower their own eyes. Not embarassed, ashamed–in the deep, face-reddening, soul-shrinking kind of way. I don’t know whether this is what their religion has always been, but it is certainly what it has become. And I refuse to hear any talk about “moderate Muslims,” because I’m not sure such people exist. If they do, they are keeping deadly quiet about it. The maxim of the law is, “Silence gives consent.” If therefore we are to construe what they think, we must construe that they consent in these awful actions (pace Robert Bolt).

  • http://bringmethenews.com/2014/09/29/travel-slowly-returning-to-normal-after-chicago-air-traffic-control-center-fire/ Travel slowly returning to normal after Chicago air traffic control center fire - Rick Kupchella's – BringMeTheNews.com

    […] are expected Monday as air traffic controllers at other facilities in the Midwest, including in Farmington, Minnesota, are picking up the slack left after the fire at the Aurora center, the FAA […]

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