FAA avoids taking blame, suggests changes after Aurora sabotage

  • The FAA says it can improve its response to a crisis like the Chicago Center fire in September, if it's funded.

      The FAA says it can improve its response to a crisis like the Chicago Center fire in September, if it's funded. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/24/2014 7:32 PM

The Federal Aviation Administration was short on blame and heavy on improvements in a report about the aviation meltdown that occurred Sept. 26 after sabotage at a crucial flight control center in Aurora.

"We hope never to see an event like this again, but we must be prepared," agency Administrator Michael Huerta said Monday in a conference call. The FAA released a review of contingency plans and security measures after a fire that destroyed vital radar and communications equipment at the Chicago Center facility, which handles long-distance flights.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Air traffic controllers handed off flights to neighboring centers in Elgin and across the Midwest as their screens went dark. All landed safely. but the event canceled more than 5,700 flights at O'Hare International and Midway airports, most of those in the first few days, and snarled air traffic across the U.S. and around the world.

The report found that the current infrastructure and air traffic management systems are "robust" but have limited flexibility in emergencies.

Chief among the recommendations were ideas to create redundant systems that Huerta hoped would restore flight operations to "90 percent within 24 hours" of another catastrophe. But Huerta issued caveats such as "if resources are available." He explained the agency was operating under a temporary budget but would consult with the House Appropriations Committee about funding for the proposed fix.

Former FAA contractor Brian Howard of Naperville faces federal charges alleging he slashed vital telecommunications cables and ignited a basement room at Chicago Center, ruining scores of computers that transmit flight plans and equipment. He had worked as a field technician for eight years with Harris Corp., which provides technology to the FAA.

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The report stated the FAA has focused its efforts on external threats but that work to detect insider threats was only recent and "must be expanded and accelerated." Huerta promised better surveillance of sensitive areas at the building although he didn't give details. He also referenced random screenings of employees.

When Chicago Center went down, about 200 of its controllers were transferred to other facilities, but it wasn't seamless because the information and equipment they required to perform their jobs took time to rebuild elsewhere. The agency's Plan B involves technical upgrades so that radar, voice radios, flight planning data, weather and aeronautical information will be transferred expeditiously.

There's also a plan to essentially re-create the airspace handled at Chicago Center at its sister centers in Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cleveland and Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, the real solution lies in a satellite-based guidance system dubbed NextGen, which the FAA is gradually implementing in cooperation with airlines, officials say.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The improvement of NextGen technologies will enable a quicker transfer of information. We have redundant systems now, but NextGen enhances that time frame," FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said.

Lawmakers gave carefully worded responses, expressing hopes the FAA would do all it could to avoid a recurrence. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said he was waiting for a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general.

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, said he wanted to work with the agency on a new security plan "while ensuring FAA has the resources to respond to any future National Airspace System disruptions safely and efficiently."

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