Watchdog: FAA ill-prepared for repeat of Aurora sabotage

  • Sabotage at the Chicago Center air traffic control facility in Aurora messed up flights across the country for days last fall.

    Sabotage at the Chicago Center air traffic control facility in Aurora messed up flights across the country for days last fall. Daily Herald File Photo

Updated 9/30/2015 6:12 PM

If sabotage that took out a major air traffic control center in Aurora last year occurs again somewhere in the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration will still be hamstrung in responding, an audit concluded Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general's office reviewed the events of Sept. 26, 2014, when a disgruntled contractor ignited vital computer equipment at the FAA's Chicago Center facility. The crime brought air traffic to a standstill and caused delays and cancellations that lasted for days.


"Significant work remains to prevent or mitigate the impact of similar events in the future," reported Matthew E. Hampton, assistant inspector general for aviation audits. And "new technologies that are expected to improve FAA's continuity of air traffic operations will not be available for years."

The findings underscored the need for Congress to pass a long-term budget for the FAA and invest in new technology, such as a satellite-based air traffic system, instead of short-term funding extensions, said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield and U.S. Reps. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, Bill Foster of Naperville, Dan Lipinski of Western Springs, Mike Quigley of Chicago and Jan Schakowsky of Evanston, all Democrats, in a statement.

The investigation found that the FAA's Plan B in cases of such emergencies were just for short-term crises, not for the kind of long-lasting damage that occurred at Chicago Center. In fact, Chicago-area air traffic controllers and managers had to troubleshoot to invent a new plan that involved traveling to other centers in the Midwest.

Although a redundant system to direct long-range flights was supposed to stand ready at a facility in Atlantic City, it turned out the operating system was incompatible with Chicago Center's, the inspector general said.

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Lack of a backup system to capture electronic flight plans also meant controllers had to contact pilots, write down information and type it into a database in some cases.

Failures also occurred in security, the report said. Former contractor Brian Howard of Naperville torched equipment in the basement of Chicago Center after being reassigned to another location. Although his last day in Aurora was Sept. 18, he still had full access to enter the building on Sept. 26, Hampton noted.

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said the agency had significantly increased security to reduce vulnerabilities and evaluate how it handles "insider" threats versus external attacks.

"Despite the massive amount of system damage that the fire caused, the FAA was able to restore most air service to Chicago-area airports within a relatively short period of time. In three days, more than 80 percent of traffic was restored at O'Hare, and more than 90 percent of traffic was restored at Midway," Isham Cory said.

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