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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.


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