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Air-itorial over the big game: How the Super Bowl air traffic plan came together

The preparations for Super Bowl LII include the construction of a new regional highway system - in the skies over Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Sunday's game will bring an estimated 1,100 additional private aircraft into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, as well as six satellite airports in the region.

To relieve potential congestion, an air traffic team spent a year devising new air routes and training air traffic controllers to handle the extra volume.

The team comprises five air traffic controllers who work at various locations. Dan Last and manager Kurt Mara watch the radar at MSP, while Pete Dwyer works in the control tower. Jeff St. Germain and manager Sean Fortier help guide aircraft from the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZMP) in Farmington.

The team mapped out mutually exclusive routes for private aircraft that will be flying into Lake Elmo, Airlake (Lakeville), Flying Cloud (Eden Prairie), Crystal, Anoka County Blaine, and St. Paul Downtown Airports. Normally, flights from these "reliever airports" overlap with airspace at MSP.

"We built their own highway for them that they don't have to converge," said Last, who lives in Farmington. '"Basically these roads run independently of the Minneapolis traffic cell. Minneapolis doesn't get delayed and neither does St. Paul and Flying Cloud."

Guiding a commercial or private aircraft onto one of Minnesota's runways requires the combined efforts of three FAA air traffic divisions.

Planes cruising at altitude through U.S. airspace are sorted and separated by controllers at one of 24 Air Route Traffic Control Centers across the country. Each regional "en route center" has a designated airspace where they maintain traffic flow and a safe distance between aircraft. At the Minneapolis Center, nearly 300 air traffic controllers are responsible for air route corridors above Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.

Once an aircraft gets to within about 50 miles of their destination, guidance is taken over by the Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON. At MSP, this "Minneapolis Approach" team use radar and radio to guide pilots on landings and takeoffs.

"We're at the base of the tower at MSP," said Last, who works at TRACON with Mara. "We control the aircraft within a 50-mile radius."

Lastly, personnel in the control tower guide all ground movement and aircraft flying within a five-mile radius.

The Super Bowl air traffic team, each with representatives from the three FAA divisions, also had to establish how many planes at each airport could handle at a given time. Their big test will come late Sunday and early Monday as everyone leaves.

Reliever airports may have to process one plane every three minutes, Last said.

"We took over a training lab for three weeks and we put all the workforce through a two-hour session, what the route structure looks like and what the volume looks like," he said.

They calculated that each of the six airports will be able to process 28 planes per hour.

Last said their goal is to get all private aircraft off the ground within 15 hours after the game.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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