The Federal Aviation Administration will review its security in the wake of a fire last week at a facility near Chicago, the agency announced Monday morning. And even as air traffic has slowly increased at the city’s two airports — both among the busiest in the country — significant cancellations were still plaguing travelers.
On Friday, a contractor at a radar facility in Aurora, Ill., set fire to a telecommunications room and attempted suicide, according to the FAA. The center was evacuated early in the morning and a ground stop was issued for flights in the area and flights bound for Chicago, eventually leading to thousands of cancellations Friday.
In the days that have followed, this incident continued to wreak havoc on air travel in the region. More than 770 flights through Chicago were canceled Saturday and an additional 800 flights were canceled Sunday, according to the flight-tracking site FlightAware.
The misery continued Monday, with more than 400 flights to O’Hare International Airport canceled by noon.
“I do understand the traveling public’s frustrations with flight delays and cancellations,” Michael P. Huerta, the FAA administrator, said in a speech Monday morning. “The air transportation system is vital to our economy and people rely on it to function 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I want to make sure that we have the most robust contingency plans possible.”
This review, which will take 30 days, will encompass the way security is managed at facilities, said Huerta, who was speaking to the annual Air Traffic Control Association conference outside of Washington, D.C. It will also cover the ways air traffic control operations can be resumed “as quickly as possible,” he said.
O’Hare is the second-busiest airport in the country, seeing more than 32 million passengers in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. (It trails only Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, a hub-city that had 45 million passengers that year.) Midway International Airport had more than 9.4 million travelers that year.
Trapped at O’hare overnight. Lots of time to explore! pic.twitter.com/8xI3ZZBXiC
— Connor J.E. (@KidConnor) September 27, 2014
A major problem in Chicago — or at a similarly highly-trafficked area like Atlanta or New York – can reverberate across the rest of the national system, impacting passengers who can miss connecting flights and planes that were scheduled to continue to additional destinations.
Brian Howard of Naperville, Ill., was charged with setting the fire and interfering with the operation of an air navigation facility, according to a criminal complaint filed by the FBI. Howard, who had been a contract worker there for eight years, was found inside the basement trying to kill himself, the complaint said. (This incident has raised old questions about the screening process involving employees and contractors who work for government facilities.)
The fire was set at a radar facility focusing on higher altitudes. After the fire, the FAA shifted the work done by the Illinois facility to radar centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis. These centers worked with other facilities in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin to track and manage flights traveling through the altitudes normally watched by the Aurora center.
“This is one of the most challenging situations that air traffic controllers and other FAA employees have faced since 9/11,” Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a statement. “The damage to this critical facility is unlike anything we have seen before.”
Due to damage from the fire, the communications network at the Aurora facility will be completely replaced in another part of the building. But the FAA said it will take until Oct. 13 for the radar facility to be at full service. Replacement equipment for the Aurora facility began arriving Sunday night and will continue arriving this week.
Even after flights resumed through Chicago, they did so at a reduced rate. On Friday, the FAA handled just 40 percent of the average traffic at O’Hare and 30 percent at Midway. By Sunday, air traffic controllers were able to manage about 60 percent of the usual traffic at O’Hare and more than 75 percent at Midway, officials said.