Experts: Air traffic grounding shows fragility of air system

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A fire set by an alleged rogue contractor in Aurora that paralyzed air traffic shows the fragility of the nation’s air system, experts said Friday.

It also raised questions about why the Federal Aviation Administration had to ground flights in and out of Chicago for hours Friday, and what kind of vetting and security procedures the workman who allegedly set the fire had to face, they said.

“This turned into a nightmare scenario,” said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

“What disturbs me is the length of the outage. Everyone understands a one or two hour delay but this wiped out a big chunk of an entire day.”

Aaron Gellman, an aviation expert with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said faster turnover of FAA functions is needed in the Chicago area, especially given its critical location in the national air traffic system.

Friday’s incident “shows the necessity for the FAA to transfer functions of any of these facilities to another location automatically,” Gellman said.

“Something has to be done. That one guy could affect so much — that’s a very serious situation.”

The FAA’s Chicago En Route Center in Aurora — which directs high altitude traffic across several Midwest states — was evacuated just before 6 a.m. Friday after a fire was reported in a basement telecommunications room. Officials said a man hired by an FAA contractor had used gasoline to set the fire.

Air space management was “immediately” transferred to adjacent air traffic facilities, FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said in an email.

Even so, all flights in and out of Midway and O’Hare International Airport — which this month won back the crown of “nation’s busiest” based on flights so far this year — were grounded for hours.

Southwest Airlines cancelled all flights for the day out of Midway, and FlightStats.com showed a sea of red cancellations and scores of delays long into the night at Chicago airports. By early evening, the FAA said Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis were managing Aurora’s high-altitude traffic.

University of California-Berkley professor Mark Hansen said he was not surprised all the Aurora site’s functions could not be picked up quickly because of the special training and knowledge required of controllers at such a centrally-located facility. The radar center not only handles high-altitude traffic for Midwest states but functions as an “approach control” for Chicago area airspace, he noted.

“It takes a long time to train someone to handle traffic in the heart of a busy facility like Chicago,” Hansen said. “It’s not like a doctor who, when your sick, you go to another doctor.”

Hansen, co-director of an FAA-sponsored aviation research consortium called NEXTOR, also said a backup FAA facility for the Chicago area may be worth exploring.

Friday’s incident marked the second fire in a Chicago area FAA facility in four months to put a stranglehold on air traffic. More than 1,100 Chicago flights were cancelled in May after a bathroom ceiling fan caught fire in an FAA facility in Elgin.

Gellman said questions need to be raised about how the contractor who hired Friday’s fire-setter vetted its employees and what security he faced to enter the building.

“A person started this problem, not the equipment,” Gellman said. “You need to focus on the mechanism used to check a person who is getting into clearly sensitive areas.”

Mike Draeger, former secretary of Midway’s air traffic controller association, noted that despite Friday’s inconvenience, passengers were not in danger.

“We have idiots doing stupid things and you can’t protect against everything,” Draeger said.

“You’re most interested in having a safe air traffic system…. People may be inconvenienced, but there are worse things in life than being stuck in an airport.”

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