While flight delays are expected to continue through the week at Chicago’s two airports, the arson-damaged Aurora radar facility that disrupted thousands of travelers should be fully restored by Oct. 13, federal aviation officials said Sunday.
The fire, allegedly set by a contract employee who then tried to tried to commit suicide, destroyed 23 of the facility’s 29 computer racks, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Sunday after he was briefed on the situation by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
Workers are toiling around the clock to restore communications and radar equipment, while the computer network is being completely replaced in a separate part of the facility, the FAA said in a statement.
“In the meantime, they’ve set up some alternative communication lines with other Midwestern cities to restore the normal capacity,” Durbin said.
The Aurorafacility controls air traffic for flights traveling at 5,000 feet or higher over the Midwest. It’s critical to air travel all over the country because of its central location.
Air traffic controllers are creating plans that are “evolving and improving by the hour” to compensate for the redirected flights, National Air Traffic Controllers Association spokeswoman Trish Gilbert said in an emailed statement Sunday.
More than 550 flights were canceled at O’Hare International Airport as ofSundaynight, and delays averaged between 20 and 30 minutes. Meanwhile, about 55 flights were canceled at Midway, where delays averaged 30 minutes, the Department of Aviation said.
Southwest Airlines, Midway’s dominant carrier, said that it anticipates operating at a reduced rate that allows only a dozen departing flights every hour. Its normal operations allow more than 25 departures an hour.
A family friend of Brian Howard, 36, the Naperville man and former U.S. Navy sailor charged with setting the fire, said Sunday he was in shock.
“Brian served his country honorably on a nuclear submarine,” said the man, who asked not to be named. “I don’t want people to paint him as a monster because he’s not. He’s not a terrorist or a domestic terrorist.
“I can tell you he wasn’t a druggy or a boozer,” the man said. “He played soccer with my son in high school. He was a goalkeeper. He was a good kid. Something must have happened, I don’t know what. This is totally out of character.”
Howard, who remains hospitalized with self-inflicted knife wounds, had been working at the FAA facility as a field technician for the Harris Corp. Harris manages the FAA telecommunications infrastructure and is modernizing systems at FAA facilities across the country, Harris spokesman Jim Burke said. The company is working with government officials to get the Aurora center back in operation.
Howard has been charged with destruction of an aircraft facility, a felony.
The FAA said Saturday that a background check was done on Howard in 2006, when he began working at another FAA facility, in Boston, as a field maintenance technician for a Harris subcontractor.
“The background investigation did not reveal any issues of concern,” FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said.
Durbin told WGN-AM (720) on Sunday that the FAA should consider requiring that in “critical positions” such as the one Howard held, two employees be on duty at all times. “I know there’s more expense, but look at the expense associated with this disaster,” he said.
All incoming and outgoing air traffic was canceled immediately after the fire. As flights resumed Friday, O’Hare Airport operated at only 40 percent capacity, according to the FAA. At Midway, the figure was 30 percent.
Airlines canceled more than 670 flights Saturday at O’Hare, with United Airlines canceling about a third of its 480 scheduled O’Hare flights, a spokeswoman said.
At Midway, more than 125 flights were canceled Saturday, according to the city’s Department of Aviation.
Howard’s family, co-workers and witnesses were being interviewed, Thomas Ahern, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Saturday.
Howard got to work about 5 a.m. Friday, according to the criminal complaint charging him, and soon after that posted a chilling Facebook message: “Take a hard look in the mirror, I have. And this is why I am about to take out ZAU and my life,” using the three-letter designation for the Aurora center.
Apparently addressing his family, he added: “April, Pop, love you guys and I am sorry. Leaving you with a big mess. Do your best to move on quickly from me please.”
Howard had been upset about a transfer order to Hawaii, authorities said. The Harris spokesman would not discuss that.
Howard was raised in Highland, Indiana, where he graduated from Highland High School in 1996.
Soon after, he joined the Navy and was stationed at one point on the submarine the USS Connecticut, according to military records. He attained the rank of Machinist Mate Third Class and left the service in 2000 after what appears to be a typical tour of duty, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rob Lyon said Saturday.
Chris Karpinec, who now lives in Texas, was friends with Howard in high school. He remembers him as “pretty much just a normal guy.”
Family members, including Howard’s mother, would not comment Sunday. His sister, April, said, “No comment, thanks.”
Contributing: Matt McKinney