Why aren't O'Hare and Midway back to normal after sabotage?

  • Critical telecommunications and radar feeds into Chicago Center air traffic control facility in Aurora were destroyed, and the fallout is still affecting flights.

      Critical telecommunications and radar feeds into Chicago Center air traffic control facility in Aurora were destroyed, and the fallout is still affecting flights. Mark Black | Staff Photographer, July 2011

  • American Airlines passengers crowd Terminal 3 at O'Hare Airport on Sept. 26 at the height of the meltdown.

      American Airlines passengers crowd Terminal 3 at O'Hare Airport on Sept. 26 at the height of the meltdown. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/6/2014 9:28 AM

It's been 10 days since the "radar scopes went dark at Chicago Center," and the one-two punch of delays and cancellations has taken its toll at O'Hare and Midway International Airports.

Yes, as the FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Friday, the situation is vastly improved over Sept. 26, when vital equipment was sabotaged at an air traffic control center in Aurora that handles high-altitude flights in the region. This weekend, operations were substantially back to normal, the city and the FAA reported.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But with at least 1,600 nixed flights and days remaining before Chicago Center reopens Oct. 13, you're probably wondering why a return to normal takes more than two weeks.

It starts with the fact the field technician charged in the case knew exactly how to deal a near-death blow to Chicago Center and had about 40 minutes to do it.

Naperville's Brian Howard worked for contractor Harris Corp., which supplies the FAA with flight data input/output computers, authorities said.

Airlines feed flight plans into flight data computers at Chicago Center, which also are distributed to the control towers at O'Hare and Midway and the intermediate air traffic center in Elgin.

Howard not only destroyed most of the computers in a basement area, he cut essential radar and telecommunications feeds, authorities said.

As the FAA repairs the damage, high-altitude air traffic control centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Kansas City are picking up the slack. So is the Elgin Terminal Radar Approach Control and other outlets in the Midwest.

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Normally, about 5 miles from the O'Hare tower, flights are handed over to the Elgin Terminal Radar Approach Control that guides low-altitude aircraft. About 40 miles out, Chicago Center takes over, guiding high-altitude planes.

Removing one side of that triangle means fallout, despite the best efforts of the air traffic community to contain it. Here's why:

• With the computers out of service, there are no automated flight plans for aircraft heading out of O'Hare and Midway. Flight plans include the flight number, airline, altitude, speed and route. Instead, airlines have been faxing the information to the O'Hare tower and controllers are handing off flight plan data using direct phone lines to receiving air traffic control centers, officials said. "What was automatic with a key stroke is now being done with pen and paper and voice," said National Air Traffic Controllers Association spokesman Doug Church.

• Other high-altitude centers' radar coverage doesn't totally overlap the Chicago airspace. As a result, long-distance flights, such as Seattle to Washington D.C., are detouring around Chicago airspace, Church said.

Shorter flights, such as Minneapolis to O'Hare, are being managed by outlets in Chicago Center's coverage area, but that requires flying at lower altitudes and slower speeds (and that equals burning more jet fuel).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

• Since controllers are specialists in the airspace sector they manage (with knowledge of airports, weather patterns and geography) there's a learning curve for the backups. "Every controller knows their airspace like the back of their hand," Church said.

Currently, 142 Chicago Center controllers are deployed at other air traffic facilities here and throughout the Midwest, with 70 at high-altitude centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Kansas City. Chicago Center has about 320 fully trained controllers and 40 trainees.

Will everything be fixed by Oct. 13 as promised?

As of Friday, new computers were installed. Radar and telecommunications are in progress, which involves laying 10 miles of new cable.

How much is this costing airlines?

American and United were coy when asked. However, it's clear the costs of burning more fuel, reimbursing fliers, stranded employees, etc. will be in the millions, experts said. Stay tuned for American and United Airlines' quarterly earnings reports. Friday, Sen. Mark Kirk estimated the outage cost $123 million in lost revenue alone.

How bad is it?

"This is one of the most challenging situations ... since 9/11," National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement.

He added, "since the first moment when radar scopes went dark at Chicago Center ... controllers have ensured the highest level of safety at all times."

Huerta explained, the FAA's "highest priority is to ensure the safety of every plane that is in the air. The pilots know what to do in a situation like that ... they maintain their headings, and we worked as quickly as we can to establish communications (with other air traffic control centers). There never was a danger of a catastrophic crash, because everyone worked together to ensure the safety of the situation." He added that returning to 100 percent operations soon after such a major crisis was unrealistic under current conditions.

You can expect that statement to come under scrutiny in a few weeks when the FAA issues a report.

Have you been affected by the aviation meltdown? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com. Check flight status at http://www.flychicago.com/pages/landingpage.aspx.

Upcoming

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Learn more at www.cmap.illinois.gov/about/2040/update.

Gridlock alert

No respite for you, Lake County. IDOT crews have started resurfacing Route 12 between Lake-Cook and Ela roads in Deer Park, Kildeer and Lake Zurich. Traffic will be down to one lane, so avoid it if you can. The project will be finished in June.

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