Washington Air Traffic Control Center Evacuated, DC Flights Grind to a Halt

The main air traffic control center for the DC area in Leesburg, Viginia was evacuated this evening and flights are snarled throughout the region.

Baltimore, Dulles, and National airport all have had ground stops. Flights haven’t been taking off for the area, and departing flights have been delayed a couple of hours. The situation is ongoing.

The facility was evacuated after people inside complained of fumes.

The fumes originates from a construction site and “permeated the control room,” the FAA said in a statement. It said the facility, which directs high altitude flights over the region, passed airborne flights off to other air traffic control facilities for “safe handling.”

“We are actively working to fully ventilate the facility,” the FAA said.

Copyright: cylonphoto / 123RF Stock Photo

Reportedly adhesive from a roof repair leaked into the attic of the building and made its way into the control room through the air conditioning system. Controllers suffered “burning eyes, sore throats, vomiting.”

Washington Center in Leesburg one of the busiest air traffic facilities in the country covering the mid-Atlantic and above.

As I pointed out earlier in the year US air traffic control was completely unprepared for the next system outage.

Less than half the recommendations of the major Chicago outage have been implemented. And while the FAA has contingency plans for outages, controllers haven’t been fully trained in those plans. You’d think that the FAA could switch from one control center to another in the event of a failure (“an ATC-Zero event”) but according to the DOT Inspector General neither ATC software nor communications links make that feasible.

Hopefully the system can be brought back online to full capacity quickly.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. I was trying to figure out what was going on earlier because I was tracking LH419, due to depart 18:05, and it was still on the ground at 8:30pm. Also, AA Exec Plat hold times 28-39 minutes! Check out the Flightaware map with the big “hole” over the mid-Atlantic: http://flightaware.com/live/

  2. Serious question for you Gary — that Washington control facility employs something like 400 air traffic controllers. If that facility goes down entirely, why do you think there would be enough staff and scopes available at other facilities to handle all of the workload?

  3. Dan it isn’t just about shifting flights. ATC is far behind technologically compared to Canada. We have a lot of work to do to improve the ATC system as this shows.

  4. @Gary

    For this particular problem? Sure it is. The question I asked was how you expected these flights to be handled when a facility goes down. *Somebody* has to work them, right? Who and how? I mean, these flights have to be redirected to a scope somewhere, and a human has to be available to work them, right? Where should these scopes go, and how would a human who hasn’t been certified to work that airspace be available to work them?

    The answer to this question is NOT “Europe and Canada.” Just tell me where to put the scopes, and find humans certified to work the airspace. Answer that, and then we can jump to the argument that the system can’t actually do that. But without answering this question, “we can’t technically do it” doesn’t really matter — it’s a red herring unless you know what solution you’d actually like to implement.

    I’d then ask you where this should go in the priority list of improvements. For all of the other stuff that you think should get done, where does this go in the list?

    This isn’t just a tech issue — it’s political, policy, and operational problem all in one.

    You rag on diversionary and deflection tactics that the US airlines use with ME3 arguments, but you’re doing the same thing here by answering my questions with “Canada” and “Europe”.

  5. Gary,

    My wife and infant were affected by this on a flight coming to Germany. 2.5 hours on the tarmac only to deplane and eventually take off 5.5 hours late. As a result, they are missing their connecting flight in Zurich and are going to have to wait for who knows how long before the next direct flight. Ticket was purchased with Aeroplan miles. What are the chances of claiming some kind of voucher?

  6. @Steve-O not the airline’s fault, per EU rules it’s an extraordinary event, I would be surprised if they gave you anything but if they do it’s purely as a courtesy

  7. Just FYI – flights can indeed, and do, transfer ATC facilities on an as-needed basis. The technology is there for it, and it has been done. The issue, as mentioned above, is staffing. And even if staff were available, enough terminals in each facility.

    The outdated nature isn’t a factor in this case AND while I agree we should stay ahead of the curve, there isn’t quite a need. Safest system in the world, and most traffic. Everything works extremely good. It could be better, but the issues at hand are much more complex than just updates (which privatization won’t simply solve, as the money has to come from somewhere, and someone has to pay more.)

  8. It silly to think a simple technological fix would have made things easier. Other airspace adjacent wouldn’t have been able to work the extra workload, one flow pushes towards another and no amount of “Canadian” technology could have made it safer or more efficient than what had occurred

  9. @Gary

    Link to OIG report?

    I gotta be honest with you Gary — your “arguments” here are a bit diversionary. Exactly what statements from Lucas does the DOT IG report disagree with? You’ve got some sort of agenda here, exactly what, I’m not sure. But when people try to engage with you on a discussion about this, you avoid the direct questions and throw out non-sequitors. It’s frustrating, especially coming from a “thought leader.”

    I ask you again: If an ARTCC goes ATC-0, how and where should that functionality be duplicated? You’d need to replicate the work of about 400 people.

  10. I worked in traffic management, the National Airspace Review, and assisted in the development of contingency plans for Indianapolis ARTCC in conjunction with the surrounding centers and approach controls. Aside from from building and equipping a duplicate facility to which center controllers may evacuate to and operate from, there is no way for another ATC facility to seamlessly assume the control responsibilities of another. Although I have never worked Canadian airspace, I am sure that it is just as true there as it is here. A full duplication of resources (RADAR, frequencies, landlines, maintenance) is too cost prohibitive to implement. The implemtarion of ERAM gave us a start in that direction, but a seamless transition of resources to an alternate site won’t occur until those resources are web-based, redundant, and secure. Bandwidth might be a major sticking point, however. If that does ever happen, controllers could stay at home and work traffic on the web. That would be fabulous!

    I am curious, Gary, as to what technology exists in Canada that you think would allow a facility to go off line and another to assume control of their airspace.

  11. Gosh privatization of these facilities won’t that be a huge change … NOT.

    America apparently doesn’t want to invest in its crumbling infrastructure no matter who’s in charge. Is anyone actually in charge?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.