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Towering high above Philadelphia International Airport’s (PHL) 124 gates and four runways is a control tower. But, this isn’t the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control tower. The FAA occupies a much less impressive tower across the field from this one. Instead, the tallest and largest tower at PHL belongs to American Airlines.
The AA “Hub Control Center” has a dominating view over the airport, 22 stories below. (Unfortunately, I know that number well. The elevator up to the tower was out of order when I visited, prompting a long climb up the stairwell of the 196-foot tower.) As the highest point at the airport, the tower often gets struck by lightning. And, hopefully control center workers don’t get motion sick, as the tower will sway in strong winds.
Working with American Airlines’ Integrated Operations Center (IOC) in Dallas/Fort Worth, this tower is the location of AA’s operational brain for its 421 daily flights to 122 destinations in 22 countries from 92 gates at PHL. If you’re one of the 20.5 million American Airlines passengers that flew through PHL in 2017, this control center was responsible for making sure your flight operated as smoothly as possible.
The impressive tower is an appropriate symbol for who’s in charge at PHL. With 70% of the traffic, American Airlines has quite the say over the airport. And, the domain of AA’s control center isn’t just American Airlines flights.
Pointing to the line of planes on taxiway Juliett, PHL Control Center Manager Kellby Gietl explained that AA controls the traffic on this active taxiway. It’s a rare power to be granted. One of the others is in Charlotte and is also controlled by American Airlines. Another is in Atlanta and is controlled by Delta.
“But you can’t just tell Southwest to hold to let an AA plane cut in line,” I asked. He nodded affirmatively: “We can.” The reason for AA’s control of this taxiway is simple: American Airlines has multiple gates that push back into this active taxiway. So, the FAA ceded control of the entire taxiway to AA to manage the traffic.
American has two ramp controllers located at the front of the stadium-seating-arranged tower whose full-time job is to control nearly all of the ground traffic at the airport. They stand in front of two large ground radar monitors and seemed to call never-ending commands to the pilots below. One takes the west side of the airport — from the end of terminal C down to “Cargo City” — and the other controls the east side of the airport from the end of terminal C to terminal F.
I was worried about the line of aircraft that formed during my visit. But it turned out that was light compared to what the controllers have to deal with on some occasions. When the weather goes sour or the winds shift during a busy bank of departures, dozens of aircraft can get stuck on the taxiway for extended periods.
Kellby pulled up a screenshot from a blizzard this winter, showing a sea of dozens of yellow and orange radar points. Each of the yellow dots, he said, was a plane that pushed back from the gate or landed more than 60 minutes prior, while the orange ones had been on the field for at least 90 minutes. There were only a few red ones that had been out there more than two hours. If that wait time hits 180 minutes (three hours), the airline is subject to hefty fines.
American Airlines hub control centers aren’t just responsible for controlling ground traffic. In addition, teams of controllers are dedicated to each section of the airport, managing every aspect of what it takes to turn an aircraft — the technical term for getting it ready for its next flight. In this tower, there four teams: Terminal A-West, Terminal A-East, Terminal B and Terminal C.
Teams consist of gate controllers, ramp controllers, company radio/communications coordinators and customer care coordinators. “Tech Ops Control Center Personnel” are on hand to handle scheduled and unscheduled aircraft maintenance. There’s even a “Future Planner” whose job it is to factor in delays and shuffle gates, equipment and more for future banks of flights. In addition to all of these American Airlines employees, the control center hosts coordinators from airline partners who handle fuel dispatching, cleaning services and catering.
Then there are the Turn Coordinators who, Kellby notes, “control everything from the time the flight gets in the gate to the time it gets off the gate.” They’re the choreographers making sure the delicate dance of coordinators comes together for each and every flight. And, if a flight pushes back late, the Turn Coordinator has to assign the blame for the delay.
But, with PHL winds calm and mild weather across the network, there’s few delays to assign while I visited. But, controllers were getting ready for the “heavy bank” that evening, when the heavies — the big jets doing long-haul flights — would all depart headed for Europe and the Middle East. With VIP guests on board the inaugural American Airlines flights to Budapest (BUD) and Prague (PRG), there could be some extra pressure, but the controllers didn’t show any signs of stress.
All photos by the author unless otherwise indicated.
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