Travelers tell tales as air traffic control facility reopens

  • Lori Palmer (left to right), husband, Dan, Pam Wurm, and husband, Richard, enjoy a friendly rivalry at a Cubs-White Sox game. The Palmers missed saying goodbye to Dan's sister Pam because of sabotage to the air traffic control facility in Aurora Sept. 26.

    Lori Palmer (left to right), husband, Dan, Pam Wurm, and husband, Richard, enjoy a friendly rivalry at a Cubs-White Sox game. The Palmers missed saying goodbye to Dan's sister Pam because of sabotage to the air traffic control facility in Aurora Sept. 26. Courtesy of Lori Palmer

Updated 10/13/2014 5:48 AM

What did 40 minutes of methodical, expert sabotage at one of the busiest air traffic control centers in the world Sept. 26 mean for Lori and Dan Palmer?

They couldn't say goodbye to Dan's sister, Pam.


Stranded in Dallas Sept. 27, the Bartlett couple got caught up in the aviation chaos as airline after airline canceled flights.

"We needed to get back as (Pam) had been put into hospice the day before. We didn't make it," Lori Palmer said. "We received the call about seven hours into our drive, in a rental car, that she passed. We were in Missouri."

After 16 days of a fast and furious rebuild at Chicago Center, the air traffic control facility in Aurora was set to reopen just after midnight today. The havoc alleged to have been created by a suicidal contractor canceled more than 5,700 flights at O'Hare and Midway through Thursday.

New cables will replace the slashed radar and communications feeds, and new computers will start processing flight plans from airlines after the old ones were destroyed.

For passengers, it means the world's busiest airport could be back to normal, although there's still unfinished business. The contractor, Naperville technician Brian Howard, awaits his next date in federal court on charges of destruction of aircraft facilities. Congress waits for a report on why FAA brass didn't have a better backup system when Chicago Center went down.

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"It was a very long drive through the night, nonstop, 17 hours," Lori said. "I'm sure we are not the only ones who were desperately trying to get home due to an illness and/or death."

Paradise lost

Jerry Koncel of Schaumburg and his wife were on their way to the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru Sept. 26. "Our trip to one of the seven wonders of the world would fulfill a longtime dream," he said.

The couple got up at 4 a.m. for a 7:29 a.m. flight to Miami. At 7 a.m., their plans went horribly awry, Koncel said. "The message was loud and clear -- our flight and many others were canceled due to the fire at Aurora."

He was rebooked on a 1 p.m. flight -- scrubbed, moved to a 4:15 flight -- canceled, and transferred to a 5:30 p.m. flight -- delayed. They reached Peru in the wee hours of Sunday, Sept. 28.


"We were booked on five flights before we found one that left O'Hare. The mass of humanity brought out the best and worst in people," Koncel said.

"The question everyone asked is how this could have happened and what a mess it was creating for the passengers, the airlines and the country."

Not just mad at FAA

Out of the aviation frying pan, Joe Shearin of Barrington fell into the passenger rail fire.

He and his wife flew to our nation's capital last month but decided to "take the convenient, comfortable rail option" home after their flight was canceled Sept. 28.

Fast forward to Sept. 29. Shearin called me from "purgatory" aboard an Amtrak train.

He had plenty of time to talk since the Capital Limited was going nowhere.

Freight trains took priority on the route, meaning the Shearins and their fellow captives spent hours idling. After 26 hours, the Capital Limited got to Union Station, nine hours late.

"Why? The weather was perfect, the equipment and crew performed well. No acute problem was evident," Shearin said. "But according to various Amtrak-tracking websites, this delay was not particularly unusual. A crew member said the on-time arrival rate of this train in the last month was 2 percent."

Bright side?

A totally different take on the airline mess came from Mark Duran. Jet noise caused by new O'Hare flight patterns have "terrorized" his family in recent months. After Sept. 26, "we had a few blissful days of no jet noise in the air," the north Chicago resident wrote.

"I'm sorry for those who were inconvenienced by the outage, but the days the planes were not flying were a welcome respite from the bombardment of high-pitched, whining jet engines."

Got thoughts on aviation? What about Metra's proposed fare hikes? Drop me an email at


So when will those giant cranes on Thorndale Avenue take a winter nap? Illinois tollway Director Kristi Lafleur will explain what's up with the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway project Tuesday at a Bensenville village board meeting that starts at 6:30 p.m., 12 S. Center St.

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