FAA chief promises better fallback plan, improved security after fire

  • Crowds built up at O'Hare Airport Friday after a fire at an air traffic control facility caused an aviation meltdown. Hundreds of flights were canceled and problems continued Monday.

    Crowds built up at O'Hare Airport Friday after a fire at an air traffic control facility caused an aviation meltdown. Hundreds of flights were canceled and problems continued Monday. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/30/2014 8:32 AM

Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta's promise to come up with a better Plan B likely won't get him off the hot seat as fallout continued from sabotage at an Aurora air traffic control center.

More than 560 flights were scuttled at O'Hare Monday and delays ranged from 20 to 60 minutes. At Midway waits averaged 45 minutes and more than 55 flights were canceled.

 

Huerta promised to work on a contingency plan and scrutinize security measures after a contractor cut vital radar and communications feeds into the Chicago Center facility in Aurora Friday, causing an air traffic meltdown across the nation and the world.

The FAA estimates repairs will be complete Oct. 13.

With an election just weeks away, Illinois' congressional delegation is taking notice.

"The American people deserve to know ... why there wasn't an automatic fail-safe process in place, so that another Midwest facility could immediately take over Chicago traffic," said 5th District Congressman Mike Quigley, who wants congressional hearings on the issue.

Republican Sen. Mark Kirk said, "We need to see immediate changes at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora to reaffirm the leadership of Chicago O'Hare as the world's busiest airport."

The FAA reported it accommodated 80 percent of flights Monday at O'Hare and 90 percent at Midway. While that's up from Friday, there's still a long way to go. For example, O'Hare handled an average of 2,567.8 flights and Midway 749 flights on typical Mondays in August. O'Hare recently won back the title of world's busiest airport.

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Huerta has asked air traffic controllers' unions along with the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists group and the FAA to advise on developing a better contingency plan.

"Over the next 30 days, they will take a look at our plans to make sure we are prepared to both assure the safety of aircraft but also the efficiency of the system," Huerta said.

He said a new satellite-based system dubbed NextGen that uses GPS instead of radar for flight plans would allow the agency "to agilely shift air traffic management" between facilities.

But Huerta added that funding NextGen is a challenge and pointed out that Congress had failed to pass a long-term transportation bill.

Plan B

Controllers at the O'Hare tower shepherd arrivals, departures and movements within five miles of the airport. Then, Elgin's Terminal Radar Approach Control center, or TRACON, takes over, managing aircraft at an altitude of less than 17,000 feet for about 40 miles.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Next, aircraft is handed to Chicago Center in Aurora, which guides high-altitude flights in Illinois and four other states.

After radar and communications feeds in Aurora were cut Friday, the FAA shifted Chicago Center controllers to Elgin and other Midwest TRACONs. It transferred control of flights 18,000 feet and above to high-altitude centers in Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cleveland and Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, 19 other TRACONs in the Midwest picked up slack by handling aircraft at higher altitudes than normal.

The process hasn't been seamless, Huerta admitted.

The sabotage damaged computers that receive flight plans from the airlines. That meant flight plans had to be faxed from the airlines and typed in or handwritten, which doubled workloads on the weekend, National Air Traffic Controllers Association spokesman Doug Church said.

As of Monday, much of that was automated, Huerta said, speaking at an aviation industry event.

Authorities say an FAA contract employee, 36-year-old Naperville resident Brian Howard, set a fire in the basement of Chicago Center as part of a suicide attempt.

Speaking to the Daily Herald Friday, Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin wondered how Howard was able to walk around with a suitcase, which was caught on video surveillance cameras, and not generate any curiosity.

Federal authorities have charged Howard with one count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, a felony.

A 1998 Government Accountability Office report surfaced criticizing FAA computer security and noting vulnerabilities including access by contract service employees.

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 members at the Aurora facility, must have their identification inspected by a perimeter guard and must swipe their cards to enter the building.

Security protocols will be reviewed to ensure "we have the most robust policies and practices in place," Huerta said.

Democratic Congressmen Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, Dan Lipinski of Western Springs, Jan Schakowsky of Evanston, Bill Foster of Naperville and Quigley joined Durbin Monday in asking the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general to step in and evaluate FAA safety protocols and contingency plans.

• Daily Herald staff reporter Matt Arado contributed to this story.

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