Commercial flights in the event of Air Traffic Control shutdown

I was speaking recently with a GA pilot friend about what would happen to the commercial airlines in the event of a total government shutdown. For this scenario lets say that Air Traffic Control is not working at all. How would that affect commercial air carriers and freight carriers?

For example – without ATC you cannot file an IFR and so you cannot fly above 18,000 feet. Yes, I know there would not be anyone enforcing the IFR, but it would be dangerous to fly without it, right? However for large passenger jets it would require too much fuel to fly long routes below that altitude. Would the flights be cancelled?

What other considerations would there be?

I must be confused, but your question couldn’t actually be as simple as “Would commercial passenger airline travel in the U.S. continue operations if there was no air traffic controlers at the, um, controls?”, right?

I am not an expert in the subject, but I would have to guess “No”.

Out of curiousity, what is your best guess?

Well, planes can fly without the ATC to facilitate takeoffs and landings. I assume there is some sort of plan in the event of a power outage at one airport, so perhaps that would be extended to allow traffic to continue?

If this happened I doubt that Delta, Fed Ex, et al, would just close down too. I’m wondering what other alternate ways they would use to stay in business.

Wow, that is hard for me to wrap my head around. I had no idea that anyone with even a the most elementary, simplistic understanding of the subject could actually possibly believe this.

I fly for a living, so here’s my two cents (which is even less in today’s money)…

I don’t see how any airlines could possibly operate without ATC. It’s not just a matter of filing flight plans or climbing above 18000’. It’s about safety. There is simply no way our current air travel system could work without ATC.

While it’s true that airlines do conduct some operations out of non-towered airports, that just means nobody is actually clearing them for takeoff and landing. Those flights are in the ATC system from beginning to end, they have slots and clearance void times to ensure a safe transition into the enroute environment. ATC is involved at every step, with very few exceptions.

I know very little about government rules on which workers are considered essential, and who is legally prevented from going on strike and such. But I’m pretty sure if the ATC system were compromised through a strike, attrition, sick-out or whatever, it would bring a great deal of our travel system to a stop.

(Edited for typos)

Aren’t commercial jets regularly inspected by the FAA? And company inspections and mechanics’ records need to be submitted to and reviewed by that agency, too. That would quickly ground a lot of jets.

For a point of reference, in September, 2014, a man who worked at an air traffic control station in suburban Chicago attempted to commit suicide by burning himself to death inside of the center’s computer room. The loss of just that one center caused a massive disruption in flights in and out of Chicago for days, as the controllers used the systems from neighboring centers to attempt to keep some air traffic moving in. (I was scheduled to fly home from Orlando that weekend, and wound up renting a car and driving, rather than waiting and hoping for a flight to actually go.)

But, that assumes that there’s just one outage. If all of the ATC centers shut down, I have to believe that the airspace would immediately be limited to emergency and military flights only.

As the OP mentioned, if you want to fly IFR (and commercial airlines are required by law to fly IFR), you have to file a flight plan, and the controllers assign you a slot within the system.

In 1981 the air traffic controllers struck, and more than 11,000 were fired within days. The administration put together a patchwork of the few remaining controllers, supervisors and military controllers. Air traffic control wasn’t completely shut down, but it was severely compromised.

The remaining controllers limited IFR slots to commercial airlines, and even those slots werereduced by one-third.

In other words, you can’t put more commercial (IFR) flights in the air than the system can hold at a given time.

I vividly remember visiting Sandy Hook, New Jersey. It was early evening twilight and I looked up and saw the neat string of pearls in the sky… the jets lining up in the approach corridor to JFK. Just unbelievable coordination that happens continuously. And sometimes the airport is overloaded and there are also holding patterns at higher altitudes. And sometimes weather is bad and they can’t land as many planes as normal… when this happens ATC will start holding the originating flights before takeoff or starts cancelling flights inbound.

It cannot work without ATC.

And then you have Die Hard 2.


Ah, that is the part I did not realize: Commercial flights do not have the option of non-IFR or even just choosing to use small planes that (I assumed) don’t always require IFR.

Former military radar controller. It’s not whether one files an IFR plan and thus is ‘in the system.’ It’s not even whether one flies using instruments (Instrument Flight Rules). It’s who else is in the sky along your route at about the same time you want to be at any given point. Without ATC, there’s no viable plan for ‘noise reduction’ (as in avoiding the sound of two aircraft meeting at high velocity).

A few decades ago, there was an ATC strike in Canada and the entire airspace was closed. Just like the US airspace after 9/11. It is inconceivable that commercial airlines could continue. In 19 days I will be flying from Barbados to Montreal and we fly over eastern Long Island, CN, MA, VT and Montreal. If the US airspace is closed I guess we could fly by way of Halifax.

there’s no reason to fly routes with modern GPS equipment. Just fly direct. And each commercial plane has equipment that shows where all the other planes are. So transiting airports is not the problem. The problem is flow control into airports. Without per-arranged time slots it would be chaos. You can’t just fly to an airport and hope you can land before your fuel runs out. You need a known arrival time to plan around.

I know you are one of the pilots here on the boards, so it’s with due respect that I say this is an oversimplification. The TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) equipment we have to show other traffic is, at least to my thinking, a last-ditch tool. It’s not for routine separation, which is the primary job of ATC. Even at cruise, away from airports, this is critical. Some of the next-gen stuff may change how we do it, but in the current system it would be incredibly unsafe to have planes flying around on direct routes relying only on their onboard TCAS for separation.

While we do frequently get direct routing, it’s still predicated on IFR separation standards, and RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minima) when at the relevant altitudes and properly certified. All of that requires ATC.

Not to jump down anyone’s throat, but I do feel that even the mild suggestion of “Hey, we don’t really need so much ATC when it comes down to it, do we?” is asking for trouble. In the U.S. we have both the busiest and safest airspace in the world. Let’s not forget that.

Are commercial aircraft equipped with ADS-B now? / is it used for TCAS instead of whatever was used before? I’m not claiming it is a substitute for ATC I’m just curious.
We are in the process of getting ADS-B out on one of our (flying club) GA planes, we already have some ADS-B in devices.


There’s a lot more then just ATC that’s being affected by the shutdown. There are a ton of us who are working without pay as well. All the people who make the National Flight Data Digest, NFDD, the people who create air space, the people who make the charts. There’s some grumbling in my office, but we haven’t missed a pay check yet.

It’s going to be interesting in a couple of weeks when people want to start taking time off. I’m going away next week, they told us that if you had leave approved for before the shutdown we can go, but what if it continues for weeks or months?

Some do, but it’s far from an up-and-running “system” - not nearly enough to enable us to move away from current ATC methods.

Let’s also remember that “commercial” aircraft covers a wide variety of operations. Airlines, on-demand operators, freight, medical evac etc, and they all share the same sky. Then we have the entire VFR world that is sharing some, but not all, of the same airspace. Not all aircraft can be equipped with the latest and greatest stuff, so we have to retain the ability to provide ATC service to everybody, at least for a time. It’s still legal to fly without a transponder or even a radio in some airspace and operations. We still have old technology in the form of VORs and NDBs. My point being that new technology, while great and even vital going forward, hasn’t changed the playing field completely.

I’ll tell you what I look forward to, and I’m just speculating here… When I do over-water flights I’m always amazed at the low tech communications and separation. We talk on high-frequency radio and make position reports. This means that in 2019 we are still in a situation where a guy in a room is essentially pushing around models of airplanes on a map based on where we say we are and where we predict we’ll be next at a certain time. It works well (and there is tech in the form of SELCAL and CPDLC to augment it if you’re so equipped), but it’s really 1940s-ish. I’m hoping next-gen satellite communications and positioning will eventually obviate the need for that stuff.

I thought the military also had Air Traffic Controllers- wouldn’t they be just be pressed into service? I realise the volume of traffic would be entirely different. Back in the 80’s we had a pilots strike in Australia and passengers were being carried around in Hercules and stuff. In the time frame pilots were recruited from overseas to replace the Union pilots.