On September 26, all air traffic in and out of Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway international airports were grounded due to a fire in the basement of the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZAU) in Aurora, IL. The center covers 91,000 square miles, and its closure resulted in the cancellation of thousands of flights to and from Chicago area airports over several weeks, causing a ripple effect felt throughout the nation.
The fire is being blamed on a contract employee, Brian Howard, who is facing multiple charges and is currently awaiting trial. The damage caused when Howard cut cables; early reports suggest that nearly $123 million in economic activity was lost as a result of the cancelled flights.
“This is one of the most challenging situations that air traffic controllers and other FAA employees have faced since 9/11,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said. Rinaldi went on to say that it was almost impossible to overestimate the damage Howard caused.
With such a significant impact on the nation’s air traffic control system, let’s look at some lessons being learned from the Chicago air traffic control center fire.
Better equipment at neighboring facilities could have allowed them to control the airspace managed by ZAU when the facility went down.
"We should not be in a position where a singular event such as this can cripple air travel and disrupt the plans of thousands of travelers,” U.S. Travel President and CEO Roger Dow said, “If policymakers fail to treat this as a wake-up call, and continue to delay significant investments in our fragile aviation infrastructure, we can count on some similar variant of this incident happening again."
The upgrades promised by the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen modernization initiative would produce this capability and prevent a similar situation from happening again. According to Michael Huerta, administrator of the FAA, NextGen will create a flexible air traffic control system where controllers “will have the ability to configure any single facility to view any part of our nation’s airspace,” essentially eliminating this problem in the future.
As previous NATACS posts have described however, NextGen is still years away and the program is currently encountering its own problems. Still, Huerta says the program will "provide us the infrastructure that we need to seamlessly and quickly transition between facilities, as well as give us additional operational capabilities.”
The contract employee accused of setting the fire had worked at the air traffic control center for more than eight years, and was upset about being transferred to Hawaii. According to authorities, Howard, a telecommunication employee, was so upset by the move that after cutting all the essential cables and destroying critical equipment, he attempted to take his life. While the required background checks did not raise any red flags, Huerta has ordered a full review of the vetting process, especially for contract employees who, according to CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo, make up a “huge percentage” of FAA staff. Periodical evaluations and background checks could be one solution to identifying potential new problems in long-time staff.
Restrict Access to Sensitive Areas
In addition to periodic reviews of personality profiles and backgrounds, the FAA is also looking at restricting access to sensitive areas. Bob Richards, the former O’Hare controller, advocates a “missile silo” approach to security and requiring a minimum of two employees in sensitive areas.
With so much damaged caused by a single “rogue” employee, administrators and policy makers are sure to continue upgrading the nation’s air traffic control system and implement changes in security for all staff with access to sensitive areas.