Sabotage raises questions about Chicago FAA vulnerability
From a bizarre act of sabotage to a malfunctioning fan, Chicago area air traffic control centers that aim to ensure flights across the nation and the world are on time have proved surprisingly vulnerable.
And as aviation experts wonder if the Federal Aviation Administration is doing all it can to prevent such meltdowns, several in Congress are calling for answers from the agency.
Damage at the Chicago Center facility Friday in Aurora snarled air traffic in the region for most of the day and canceled about 2,000 flights at O'Hare and Midway International airports. Brian Howard, 36, of the 1300 block of Ivy Lane in Naperville -- a subcontractor who the FBI said was told he was being transferred to Hawaii after eight years working in Aurora -- has been charged with one count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, accused of setting fires and cutting radar and communication lines into the facility.
The fires came just months after smoke from overheated wires in the HVAC system evacuated an Elgin air traffic control facility, causing the FAA to ground flights to O'Hare and Midway for three hours.
"This affects not just the United States but the world," said retired aviation professor Aaron Gellman, who is with Northwestern University's Transportation Center. "I don't think this is the best we can do."
Characterizing Friday's fire as someone "sabotaging a federal facility," Gellman said "it opens up possibilities of inappropriate people working in sensitive areas. Somebody needs to do a better job of vetting the people they use."
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, called for an immediate review of screening procedures at the Aurora center as well as a report within 30 days outlining changes "to prevent any one individual from having this type of impact on the heart of the United States economy."
Congressman Mike Quigley said he expects the FAA "will thoroughly review its response to (Friday's) events and the circumstances leading up to it."
It's premature to make judgments now, the 5th District Democrat said, adding he intends to "work with the FAA, the city and others to determine if further federal action is necessary."
As for the pattern of closures at FAA facilities in Elgin and Aurora -- a fire alarm and subsequent sprinklers also cleared out Chicago Center on July 2, 2013 -- it's verging on inexcusable, experts said.
"The real eyebrow-raiser is why the recovery took so long. ... Everybody knows an outage will cause flights to be grounded for some period, but this seemed over the top," said aviation expert Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute.
Both professors questioned why operations in Aurora, which handles flights more than 40 miles out from Chicago in six states, couldn't have been handed off to another air-traffic center faster.
"The FAA has a facility in Atlantic City, which is supposed to be able to handle these things," Gellman said. "I can't imagine it's lack of funding. ... It's not very costly when you have the infrastructure the FAA has."
Gellman also noted that Canada has an expedited backup system when trouble affects one air traffic control center.
"Chicago O'Hare International Airport cannot be brought to a screeching halt," Kirk said.
But FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said that when the center was evacuated, management of the region's airspace was transferred to other facilities.
The FAA said in a statement Friday evening that it was managing the Aurora facility's traffic through centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis. The agency said it would continue working with those centers over the weekend to reduce disruptions.
The FAA did not comment on questions regarding redundant systems and whether the government dropped the ball on background checks of the subcontractor.
Meanwhile, fliers stranded today at O'Hare International Airport's Terminal 3 watched their weekend plans fall apart.
Delaney Sekinger of Barrington planned to fly with her mother to San Jose, California, to move into her dorm at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is a freshman. Now, she hopes to get on a flight Saturday that will get her to California in time for a scheduled academic test.
"I'm frustrated, but there's nothing I can do," said Delaney, who wants to major in psychology. "I'm breathing deeply. I realize I have no control."
After Californian Ray Neiland's flight was canceled, he waited in a lengthy American Airlines line only to learn the promise of a free hotel voucher was in vain. "I'm mad now," said Neiland, who was visiting family in Villa Park.
Coincidentally, Neiland experienced an eight-hour delay in May at O'Hare related to the Elgin air-traffic control snafu. "How lucky can you be?" he asked.
Waiting in the same line, Kimberly and Chad McNarmara of Wheaton tried to stay optimistic that their weekend getaway to Nashville wouldn't disappear.
"I'm hoping for the best, expecting the worst," Kimberly McNamara said.
More than 1,550 flights had been canceled at O'Hare, the city Chicago Department of Aviation reported Friday evening. Delays ran from 90 minutes to three hours. More than 450 flights were canceled at Midway.
Southwest Airlines suspended all flights at Midway and Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport Friday.
At O'Hare's Terminal 1, some travelers despaired of getting away. Ann Walden of Chicago jogged 16-month-old Delphine in her arms as they waited at a United Airlines counter. Making it to a wedding Saturday in Baton Rouge, La., seemed like a long shot, but Walden was hoping to still get a flight in time to celebrate her grandmother's 90th birthday, also in Baton Rouge.
"I'm pretty upset, but I'm trying to keep it together," she said.
At O'Hare's Terminal 3, long lines formed at ticket counters as airlines continued to check in passengers.
Waiting by an American Airlines counter, Jon Sciarrini said his homebound flight to Dallas had been delayed and he didn't know whether he should wait or try to arrange another flight.
"It's pretty frustrating -- a little like being in purgatory," the IT specialist said.
Gabrielle Boyd, of Cincinnati, got up at 4:30 a.m. and drove to O'Hare to meet her boyfriend, who was supposed to arrive at 9 a.m.
Instead, she scanned the arrival board hoping in vain for some good news.
"I'm going to try and find some food. ... I haven't the slightest clue when he's going to be on his way," she said, adding that she's frustrated the sabotage in Aurora caused such widespread problems. "I don't understand why this affects so many things."
The two had planned a fun weekend together in Chicago watching the Bears game, she said.
• Daily Herald staff writer Lee Filas and The Associated Press contributed to this story.