Special traffic management challenged flight operations for Super Bowl

 - July 9, 2008, 9:31 AM

From Friday, February 1 through the morning of Super Bowl Sunday two days later, Retha Slade, customer service manager for General Aviation Corp. at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY), placed Mardi Gras beads around the necks of unsuspecting flight crews and customers as they entered the company’s newly completed FBO on the north end of the field. The pace of the operation was unusually calm, then at times dramatically accelerated to near chaos as the uniqueness of the event captured the moment.

The runways of New Orleans are no strangers to large events that bring an onslaught of flight crews that have one objective in mind–to get in and out as fast as possible. But this time crews were anxious to capitalize on brief windows of opportunity, and something new to New Orleans–slot restrictions.

The first post-September 11 Super Bowl found itself planted squarely in the middle of the city’s carnival season. It was an unprecedented and unlikely combination of major events that was also a test of crewmember fortitude and an FBO dispatcher’s capacity to deliver.

The effects were obvious on the FBO ramps and in the crew lounges at both MSY and New Orleans Lakefront Airport (NEW). Arrival and departure slot restrictions began on Wednesday, January 30 and continued through February 4 for all nonscheduled IFR arrivals and departures. A temporary flight restriction (TFR) area was put into effect on the Friday before the event, with progressive restrictions increasing as game time approached. A complete restriction on all flight activity from the surface to 12,000 ft msl within three nautical miles of the Louisiana Superdome, site of Super Bowl XXXVI, was also put into effect through the weekend.

The slot restrictions were expected as both NEW and MSY prepared to receive what was predicted to be the largest Super Bowl attendance in history. An executive order that designated the game a national security event placed the Secret Service in charge of all security planning on the ground and in the skies over New Orleans.

It was clear there would be two unwelcome repercussions as a result of the TFR, which was published January 29. First, the no-fly zone, a three-mile ring from the surface to 12,000 ft around the Superdome, would force NEW operations to be restricted to Runway 18L. According to Joel Jenkinson, assistant operations manager at NEW, “We were working with the FAA and Secret Service to alter the approach path for 36L out of the restricted area if it were needed. Otherwise, all operations at NEW would have ceased in the event of unfavorable conditions.” Such drastic measures were not necessary, but crews using Runway 18L did have to contend with unfavorable winds.

Second, the flight crews who thought they could stay ahead by planning on slots between 11 a.m. and midnight on Sunday quickly found themselves out of luck. The 45-mi restriction kept all aircraft out of the area or on the ground, with the exception of those having Part 108-approved security programs previously in place.

There were options when the race for the perfect slot or a last-minute arrival was lost. Sixty miles to the northwest of the Superdome, Ryan Airport in Baton Rouge (BTR) became the favored alternative to the west. Forty-six miles to the east, just one mile beyond the boundary of the TFR, was Stennis International–a nontower field with an 8,500- by 150-ft runway. Gulfport Regional, approximately 10 nm east of Stennis, also offered the same slot-free alternative, albeit with the addition of a 1 hr 15 min ground commute to New Orleans.

Stennis Airport manager Bill Cotter reported that traffic was up substantially from 1997’s Super Bowl in New Orleans. “When we got word of the TFR and confirmation of the slot program at MSY and NEW,” he said, “we knew traffic at Stennis would increase dramatically. We had approximately 30 large business aircraft come in and remain through Monday. We even had a Boeing 737 private charter operate out of the field.”

NetJets GIV pilots Dennis Duhon and Carlos Martinez arrived at MSY on Saturday morning. However, Duhon said his dispatchers had arranged for a Monday-morning departure via NEW without any significant difficulties, since a departure from MSY could not be obtained. In between the Saturday arrival and Monday’s departure, Duhon repositioned the GIV to Baton Rouge for the overnight stays due to a lack of hotel rooms in New Orleans.

Flight crews quickly became creative at working around the challenges. For those using the slot system, in nearly every New Orleans FBO crew room someone could be overheard realigning and trading the coveted times as if they were football cards. Some stayed busy monitoring the cancellations that became available. In the heat of the moment some fortunate flight crews reported waiting for confirmation for a mere 20 min, while others were not so lucky and had to wait an hour or more as they searched for alternatives that allowed them to operate in the city.

Although questions and frustration from the last-minute slot program continued to arise through what NEW and MSY Airport officials refer to as “Super Bowl Monday,” in reality the overwhelming number of crews interviewed by AIN offered praise rather than condemnation.