Official: At least 2 weeks until FAA facility reopens
The sabotage Friday at an air traffic control facility in Aurora continued to cause havoc Saturday on air travel in Chicago and across the nation and parts of the world.
At least 795 outbound flights were canceled at O'Hare and Midway airports as of Saturday evening.
And while conditions were improving, it could be weeks before normalcy returns.
Disaster-clean-up contractors were seen at Chicago Center in Aurora, where authorities say Brian Howard, a 36-year-old contract employee from Naperville, set three fires, sliced radar and communication lines and then stabbed himself multiple times with a knife.
The center remained closed, as workers dried soaked equipment and technicians assessed the extent of damage to radar and communications systems. The Federal Aviation Administration has not released a date for when the facility would reopen but one official speaking on condition of anonymity estimated it would be at least two weeks.
The FAA is building a new central communications network in a different part of the Aurora building rather than replace the sabotaged one. Technicians are assembling parts at a remote site that will start arriving at Chicago Center Sunday. New equipment will be connected to undamaged systems and tested, the FAA said late Saturday.
Air traffic controllers from the Aurora site were reassigned to the Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control in Elgin and other facilities, managing about 60 percent of the flight load at O'Hare compared with last Saturday. By Monday, the FAA expects a "substantial increase" in capabilities.
Air traffic flow in and out of Chicago also was being managed Saturday by other TRACON centers in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, and high-altitude centers in Minnesota, Kansas, Indiana and Ohio, according to FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.
"The FAA is using all the tools at its disposal to safely restore as much service as quickly as possible," Isham Cory said.
The Elgin TRACON normally handles flights about 40 miles out of Chicago before handing them over to Aurora. Chicago Center handles aircraft in Illinois and five other states.
On Saturday afternoon, Nathan Broyles and Tim Shackelford, both of Oklahoma City, were sitting in the baggage-claim area in Terminal 1 at O'Hare, waiting to see if a 9:30 p.m. flight home would really happen.
"It keeps getting pushed back," Broyles said.
The two had attended a weeklong conference in South Bend, Ind. Their Friday night flight from South Bend was canceled, as was a flight home, so on Saturday they took a bus to O'Hare.
They decided not to go through security screening, in case their flight was canceled again. If that happened, they planned to rent a car and drive home.
"That's why we're sitting here with our luggage," Broyles said. That meant, however, they couldn't visit restaurants near the gates.
Shackelford also was missing dinner out with friends and family; he was supposed to celebrate his 54th birthday this weekend.
Meanwhile, Gayle Romero's flight from Los Angeles Saturday morning left on time, but her connecting flight was canceled. She was waiting for her sister from Denver. The two would then drive to South Bend, to celebrate their mother's 80th birthday on Sunday.
"It's not horrible," she said.
People on the departure floor above her, however, were grim-faced. There were long lines at rebooking counters.
Alan Mark, of Columbus, Ohio, was with his wife, returning from a two-week vacation to Ireland. He wondered why there weren't more agents. The volume for Saturday couldn't have surprised the airline, he said. "And it is not unusual. You see it all the time (with interruptions)."
While air traffic remained snarled, Brian Howard, the man accused of setting the fires, remained hospitalized Saturday. When paramedics found him Friday, he had cut his wrists and was cutting his own throat, authorities said.
According to the criminal complaint filed Friday in U.S. District Court, Howard had worked for an outside contractor at the Aurora center for eight years and was upset about being transferred to Hawaii. He wrote goodbye messages to two people, who may be relatives, on Facebook.
Howard has been charged with one count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities.
No court date has been set.
The suspect is an employee of Harris Corp., an FAA contractor, said Jessica Cigich, a spokeswoman for the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union. PASS represents about 11,000 FAA employees, including some who maintain air- traffic equipment though not contract workers.
"It is an all-hands-on-deck situation to get this situation restored and addressed," Cigich said.
Howard has been fired after working as a field technician at Harris for eight years, said Jim Burke, a spokesman for the Melbourne, Florida-based company.
The company operates FAA communications equipment at the Aurora center, and nationally, and is in the process of upgrading it, according to Burke. Employees like Howard provide IT and other technical support for such equipment.
He declined to describe how the company vets workers in the FAA facilities, citing the active investigation.
• Bloomberg news service, Daily Herald Transportation Writer Marni Pyke and Daily Herald staff writer Katlyn Smith contributed to this article.