Durbin calls for inquiry into fire at Aurora air-traffic center
As federal officials declared it will be at least two more weeks until the Chicago Center air-traffic facility in Aurora is back at full capacity, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Sunday he wants the Federal Aviation Administration's inspector general to scrutinize the circumstances surrounding the sabotage that grounded and delayed hundreds of flights since Friday.
Authorities say a contract employee, 36-year-old Naperville resident Brian Howard, set a fire in the basement of the facility as part of a suicide attempt.
"I'm asking the inspector general to take a look at this and ask the hard questions -- was the vetting sufficient?" Durbin said.
The FAA announced Sunday evening that O'Hare International Airport was back to 60 percent of its typical daily traffic and Midway was at more than 75 percent. The agency said it plans to restore the Chicago Center to full service by Oct. 13.
Durbin spoke on the matter Sunday as travelers continued to face delays and cancellations at Chicago's two airports.
The Springfield Democrat said he spoke with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and discussed how to improve security, such as ensuring two employees are always present in critical areas like the basement, which is Chicago Center's telecommunications room.
Durbin also wonders how Howard was able to walk around with a suitcase, which was caught on video surveillance cameras, and not generate any curiosity.
The senator contacted Huerta after an appeal from United Airlines officials. The closure of Chicago Central is not only inconveniencing thousands of passengers, but it's also a major hit for commercial airlines.
Durbin said it appears Howard damaged about two dozen racks of computers as well as cabling. The FAA is "working 24 hours a day in shifts to get repairs done as fast as possible," Durbin said Huerta told him.
Durbin praised the efforts of air traffic controllers at Chicago Center and surrounding facilities for an "all-hands-on-deck heroic effort" in the last few days.
Despite that effort, though, the effects continue to be felt Sunday. The Chicago Department of Aviation reported that airlines had canceled more than 550 flights at O'Hare International Airport. Those still taking off were delayed by 30 minutes or more.
At Midway Airport, flight delays were 40 minutes or more. Roughly 50 flights were canceled Sunday.
City aviation officials encouraged anyone planning to fly in the next few days to monitor the situation and check with the airline before making the trip to either airport.
United Airlines expected to operate roughly two-thirds of its nearly 600 scheduled flights from O'Hare on Sunday, spokeswoman Mary Clark said. She said travelers should turn to the airline's website, united.com, or its mobile app to check on the status of their flights.
"We have additional flexibility in place to enable many customers to change their travel plans without a fee," Clark said. "If a customer's flight was canceled and he or she chooses not to fly, United will offer a refund."
Chicago Center handles planes cruising at high altitudes through local airspace, as well those just beginning to approach or completing a departure from the Chicago airports. Its responsibilities have been transferred to centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis.
FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said air flow through the area should improve substantially by Monday.
Federal authorities have charged Howard, who remains hospitalized, with one count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, a felony. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. FBI Special Agent Joan M. Hyde said Sunday that no court date for Howard had been scheduled.
The FAA said it conducts employee background checks on contract workers like Howard who have access to FAA facilities, information or equipment. Contract workers, like other staff at the Aurora facility, must have their identification inspected by a perimeter guard and must swipe their cards to enter the building.
Howard worked at the facility for eight years. He was recently told that he was being transferred to Hawaii.
• Staff writer Doug T. Graham and Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.