What it takes to direct air traffic from Aurora facility
On one screen, hundreds of airplanes resembling tiny snowflakes grab the attention of air traffic controllers at the FAA's Chicago Center facility in Aurora.
On another, brightly colored Doppler radar images indicating troubling lake breezes absorb National Weather Service meteorologists.
The lights are dim, but the atmosphere is electric as controllers issue orders to pilots en route to O'Hare, the East Coast, West Coast and Europe, working an intricate system in which lives and commerce depend on them making the right call.
A good controller "has a Type A personality," veteran employee Toby Hauck explains. "You need to make quick, correct decisions. You need the ability to control conversation with tone of your voice. As traffic picks up -- if your voice starts to slip or you get a little rattled -- the pilots pick up on that."
"Controllers like to be in control," said Bill Cound, Chicago Center air traffic manager, during a rare behind-the-scenes tour last month.
Two things Federal Aviation Administration employees have no control over -- the weather and politics -- have created turbulence this summer.
While they can deal with the weather, squabbling in Congress delayed passage of a bill extending the FAA's operating authority, which expired July 23. The stalemate resulted in furloughs of 4,000 employees.
Airport improvement projects were on hold across the country and ticket taxes went uncollected, resulting in the loss of $400 million. About 70,000 construction workers were idled.
Close to home, the O'Hare International Airport modernization project continued, but construction of a new radar station in West Chicago and installation of O'Hare runway status lights stalled.
About 145 FAA employees here were affected by the furlough, including engineers or project grant administrators.
On Aug. 5, senators approved a House bill extending the FAA's operating authority until mid-September, when another fight looms. Sticking issues include subsidies for rural airports and rules for forming unions.
"There have been many grandiose speeches about creating jobs and putting people to work. This is not the way to put people to work," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said two weeks ago. "This is the best aviation system in the world; this is not the way to run it."
The furloughs started in late July -- a month supposed to be one of celebration for the FAA, marking the 75th anniversary of air traffic control.
Fatal crashes as the aviation industry grew in the 1930s led to the creation of air traffic control centers in Chicago, Newark and Cleveland in 1936. Now there are 313 facilities across the country including Chicago Center, which directs aircraft traveling through airspace in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Missouri.
At the O'Hare tower, controllers handle ground and air traffic within a 5-mile radius. Aircraft outside that range switch over to the Elgin-based TRACON, shorthand for Terminal Radar Approach Control, which directs flights up to 40 miles from O'Hare.
At 40 miles, the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora takes over.
It runs about 3 million flights a year, or 9,000 a day.
"One of the challenges here is density," Cound said. "There are lots of airplanes crammed in a small space."
To simplify, the airspace at Chicago Center is split into sectors, defined by geography and altitude.
In the northwest sector, controller Kevin Frank is speaking with a pilot on American Airlines 1324, working the aircraft down from 32,000 feet to 24,000.
His computer shows him the plane's altitude and air speed as well as wind speed.
"We're trying to keep the front of the line moving fast, to keep the airplanes moving," explains Hauck, Chicago Center vice president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
"The whole point is to talk to your airplane and get it off your frequency as fast as possible."
Frank instructs the pilots to descend to 24,000 feet at 300 knots (about 330 mph) or faster and hands the flight off to controller Jeff Konzal, who will take it down to 14,000 feet.
Up until 2004 at Chicago Center, flight details were printed up on paper strips controllers kept track of. It's all electronic now, and the FAA is aiming to step up its technology with a satellite-based system known as NextGen.
Pilots would use GPS to plan flights in coordination with air traffic controllers. Instead of ground radar, which confines pilots to circumscribed routes, GPS will allow more direct flights, saving precious fuel. Precision locations will permit aircraft to fly closer together, speeding up operations.
"NextGen will help reduce the wait in line and keep airports running at capacity," Hauck said.
"It's the biggest single change since radar," Cound said.
A sticking point is paying for NextGen, estimated at almost $22 billion for the government and $20 billion for the aviation industry through 2025. The country's debt and partisan bickering over FAA reauthorization increases the challenges of the switchover even though the plan has congressional support.
In addition to the political storms, Chicago Center weathered a tempestuous spring and summer.
Embedded in air traffic facilities like Chicago Center are specialized National Weather Service units. Meteorologists monitor approaching bad weather and relay the information to air traffic control managers.
This year, "we've been hit pretty hard," weather service unit manager Kevin Fryar said. "There have been a significant number of thunderstorms moving through the area denying air space because of their overall size."
Eighteen different weather images play out on meteorologist Ben Deubelbeiss' screen. He's concerned about lake breezes that can hamper or help the influx of overseas flights coming into O'Hare at this moment.
The lake breezes can change what directions planes land, which in turn affects traffic flow.
"Airplanes take advantage of the winds aloft so they can conserve fuel," Haucht said.
Lake winds, however, are a breeze to coordinate compared to record thunderstorms that rattled the region.
Nationwide, preliminary figures indicate there have been 1,566 tornadoes this year so far, compared to averages of 1,300, a 20 percent increase. Locally, rainfall also spiked, with 36.5 inches at O'Hare to date, while the norm is 22.7 inches.
When bad weather strikes, "it's like taking lanes out of the expressway," traffic management unit supervisor Jon Hubbard said. "You take one lane out and traffic starts backing up. Soon everyone's funneling through one hole."
Chicago Center handled two recent icing emergencies that could have been disasters because of thunderstorms. Icing occurs in summer with the right combination of precipitation, cloud cover and cooler temperatures aloft.
In one incident, an American Eagle flight from Los Angeles iced up and had to quickly fly from 37,000 feet to warmer air at 20,000 feet. Controllers jumped in and cleared out the air space to give the pilot room to descend.
In the other crisis, a small twin engine airplane iced up and the pilot panicked. Two controllers, who were also pilots, helped talk the nervous aviator down.
"It was about 45 minutes of 'lean your fuel back, turn on your heaters ...'" Hauck said. "They really took over the aircraft."
Those types of stories got lost in the negative publicity over a flurry of reports about controllers falling asleep on the job this spring, Hauck said.
Incidents included an April case at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada, where a dozing controller was blamed when a plane carrying a sick patient landed without assistance from the tower, and at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., where a controller sleeping on an overnight shift left two commercial planes to land on their own in March.
The controllers' union and FAA in July reached agreement on a series of fatigue management measures that prohibit sleeping while on duty. The pact let controllers take time off for fatigue and listen to the radio overnight and encourages employees to seek medical help for sleeping disorders.
"We work very hard to make sure people using the system are getting up and down safely," Hauck said. "But we have a hard time getting that out because of the flurry around the fatigue issue."
"We've known about the problem, but we didn't have a systematic way of looking at it," Cound said.
As the agency adopts new practices, it's also experiencing another transition -- the arrival of another generation of workers. Hundreds of controllers, hired after President Reagan fired striking workers in 1981, are now retiring. The next wave of controllers will experience technology that's light years ahead of 1936 but a mission that's the same, Hauck said, explaining, "you're as good as the last rush in your sector."