"Why is the Airport closed?"
Storny weather overlooking the airfield. A grounded plane at the jetbridge and tugs parked nearby. A large tornado is visible on the horizon.

February 14, 2020
Did you know that the Airport never closes? That’s right. Never closes.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport is always open – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Yet, it’s not uncommon to often hear passengers say that their flight was cancelled because the Airport is closed. And whenever there is bad weather like the tornado that blew through the Queen City on Feb. 6, those complaints increase.

“My flight was cancelled because the Airport is closed.”

“It’s snowing. Is the Airport closing?”

“When will the hurricane close the Airport?”

Charlotte Douglas International Airport is owned by the City of Charlotte and operated by its Aviation Department. The Aviation Department, located just across the airfield on Wilkinson Boulevard, runs the terminal much like a property manager runs a mall. In fact, the Airport is just like a big mall.

Inside the Airport version of a mall, are stores, restaurants, airline lounges and other places where passengers congregate and relax before a flight. Each business (think Starbucks, Brooks Brothers, Whisky River) is an Airport tenant renting the space its business occupies. Just like the stores in the mall.

Airport businesses operate independently of the Aviation Department and the city.  While there are requirements to ensure that food, beverage, amenities and retail are available whenever passengers are in the terminal, many businesses close when the number of flights drops off overnight. But the terminal, the Airport, is always open.

Does the same go for the airlines? Yes and no.

The airlines are tenants just like the stores and restaurants. They rent their spaces, from the ticket counters to the boarding gates to the ramp areas they work in. Unlike the Airport concessions, there are a plethora of reasons the airlines cannot fly and that leads people to say the Airport is closed.  It’s not but the planes may not be flying.

Aircraft need decent weather conditions to take off and land. That big tin can in the sky is carrying hundreds of people whose safety is a top priority. An airline would not want to send a plane into the air if dangerous conditions were present.  

Too much wind, planes may be grounded until things calm down. For example, hurricanes rumbling by can cause wind and rain that keep planes parked.

Winter weather can also be challenging.

Snow and ice on the airfield? Flights might be delayed while the runways are cleared, and the deicing machines make sure ice does not build up on aircraft wings.

Plowing a runway is very different from plowing Wilkinson Boulevard. There are runway lights and sensitive navigation equipment on a runway. If covered by snow and plowed over, there would be significant damage to sensitive equipment essential to safe travels.

Likewise, sand or melting agents work fine on the average roadway used by cars, but not runway pavement. Sand, debris and solid melting agents can leave uneven or pock marked pavement.  Imagine an aircraft hitting a pothole at 200 to 300 mph on takeoff or landing.

And despite the popular belief, the Aviation Department – commonly referred to as ‘the Airport’ – does not determine when planes take off and land. The FAA manages all air traffic, from the time a plane leaves its boarding gate until it takes off then lands at its destination. If air traffic controllers determine it is dangerous for planes to depart, then everyone is grounded. The Airport terminal stays open, though, because there are passengers here who need to eat, use the restroom, and find ways to pass the time.

There are other times when aircraft don’t fly that cause people to say the Airport is closed. That’s right, we’re not.

If lightning is detected near the Airport, planes are not allowed to take off or land. Flights headed to CLT are diverted to other Airports to wait out the storm. Lightning is more problematic for people than aircraft, which have lightning rods. When lightning is in the area, the ramp (where workers load your luggage and gas up your plane) will be put on a ground stop. No human being can be on the ramp, an open and unprotected outdoor area, when there is lightning nearby.

Which brings us back to the Feb. 6 tornado.

A tornado that first touched down in Gaston County was spotted moving toward the Airport. Flights were grounded, and passengers were moved away from terminal windows to shelter in place inside. The tornado was large enough that it could be seen from the upper floors of the Bank of America tower in Uptown a few miles away.

For more than an hour no planes took off or landed. Everyone waited.

Once the storm passed and the danger was gone, teams of people set out to inspect every taxiway and runway for flooding, debris and damage to pavement, buildings and aircraft.

We were lucky. CLT suffered no damage from the twister or stormy weather Feb. 6.

From tornado warning to the final inspection to the runways opening, two or three hours passed. Dozens of flights were cancelled or delayed. Our other operations slowed down significantly. But through it all we were here helping passengers. The Airport was open – just like always.