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The FAA’s New York Center declares “air traffic control zero” (“ATC zero”), which means that all air traffic is prevented from departing from, arriving at, or traveling through the center’s airspace until further notice. (Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002; Freni 2003, pp. 18; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 24) According to author Lynn Spencer: “ATC zero is designed for situations in which an air traffic facility is completely incapable of handling aircraft due to a massive computer failure, power outage, or even a large enough weather system. The declaration pushes all their aircraft onto neighboring sectors, and any new airplanes from adjacent sectors are turned back, at the sector boundaries if necessary.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 68) The decision to declare ATC zero is made after the second plane hits the World Trade Center, confirming that the US is under terrorist attack. There are currently hundreds of aircraft in the skies around New York and the western Atlantic that the New York Center is responsible for. (Associated Press 8/12/2002) Bruce Barrett, a senior manager at the New York Center, announces, “We’re declaring ATC zero,” and Mike McCormick, the center’s air traffic control manager, approves the order. Several of the managers there then start informing air traffic controllers of the decision.
Unprecedented Order - USA Today will report that this decision is unprecedented: “Controllers had gone to ‘air traffic control zero’ before, but only when their radar shut down or their radio transmitters went silent. The planes kept flying then, and controllers in other centers guided them. This time, ATC zero means something far more drastic. It means emptying the skies—something that has never been attempted. And not just the skies over Manhattan. Controllers must clear the air from southern New England to Maryland, from Long Island to central Pennsylvania—every mile of the region they control.… Controllers from Cleveland to Corpus Christi must reroute jets headed to the region and put some in holding patterns.”
Accounts Conflict over Whether Center Seeks Permission - According to USA Today, McCormick and Barrett declare ATC zero without first seeking permission from higher-ups, because a “call to Washington could take minutes, and they aren’t sure they have that long.” (Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002) But according to Lynn Spencer, a New York Center supervisor has already requested ATC zero in a call to the FAA’s Herndon Command Center. Ben Sliney, the Command Center’s national operations manager, assured the supervisor, “You take care of matters in your center and we will provide all the assistance necessary by stopping any further aircraft from entering your airspace.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 68)
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