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Article updated: 4/25/2013 6:24 PM

Controller furloughs create turbulence for some at O'Hare

By Marni Pyke

Rotating furlough days for air traffic controllers made life miserable for some travelers Wednesday and Thursday at O'Hare International Airport, although it depended where you were headed and at what time.

About 15,000 controllers across the nation are off the job one day every two weeks as part of federal budget cuts triggered by the so-called sequester.

The Federal Aviation Administration cautioned this week that its Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in Elgin along with others across the country would be severely impacted by absent controllers and those warnings manifested themselves in delays Wednesday and Thursday mornings, officials said. The Elgin facility handles aircraft about five miles from O'Hare to 40 miles out.

Fewer controllers coupled with low visibility meant at some points only two out of O'Hare's three parallel runways were in service, said Dan Carrico, a controller at the O'Hare tower and a NATCA official.

Typically, when there are fewer staff members, controllers will space planes farther apart, which is part of the reason for delays.

However, the Chicago Department of Aviation reported that around 10:15 a.m. Thursday, flights were getting in and out of O'Hare at a normal pace.

Unless Congress and the White House can resolve budget issues, the problems "will increase at a more rapid rate -- part of the reason is we're coming into thunderstorm season and carriers are increasing their capacity (with the summer travel season)," said Carrico.

NATCA estimates that overall delays -- including everything from bad weather to furloughs -- had tripled since sequester constraints kicked in. Delays from Sunday through Wednesday totaled 8,804 compared to 2,795 the same time in 2012. The furloughs started Sunday.

There are 70 controllers working at the O'Hare towers and 40 at Midway International Airport; the Elgin TRACON has 95 to 100; and the Chicago Center facility in Aurora has 400. Elgin controllers hand off flights to Chicago Center controllers who monitor flights 40 miles out from O'Hare.

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