Radios at O’Hare Airport crackled with alarm:
“We just had a vehicle cross the runway.”
“We’re trying to track him down now.”
“I don’t know what he’s doing.”
The driver of the van — who managed not to trigger a catastrophic collision with a plane — worked for Total Airport Services, which helps airlines with cargo loading at O’Hare. He told investigators he’d “missed a right turn.”
Then, the driver apparently winged it — tooling around the vast airfield rather than stopping and asking for help, as he was trained to do, according to records obtained from the Chicago Department of Aviation, the city agency that runs O’Hare and Midway airports.
He drove across a runway where a flight had been cleared for takeoff and already might have started its “departure roll,” records show.
He crossed another runway where a plane had just landed.
And he apparently cut in front of a United Express jet that was taxiing, according to computer video images obtained from the aviation department.
No one ended up hurt in the June 10, 2016, incident. But the situation was harrowing enough that city crews were sent to chase down and stop the driver before he caused a disaster, records show.
The number of “runway incursions” or “surface incidents” at O’Hare, among the world’s busiest airports, is dropping, city records reviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times show. Still, the incident involving the runaway runway van was one of 90 such airfield mishaps there since the beginning of 2015, according to the data, which city officials describe as “preliminary.”
The mishaps also included one in which a flight attendant for Republic Airlines drove a sport-utility vehicle from a parking lot onto the airfield at O’Hare and collided with a United Airlines plane that was taxiing to a maintenance hangar. The crash damaged one of the plane’s engines and the SUV and sent the driver to the hospital with injuries.
There were 47 incidents in 2015, 34 last year and nine this year through mid-June, according to the preliminary data. City officials would not break down how many involved city vehicles and how many involved private vehicles.
City officials define runway incursions as any “occurrence . . . involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and take off of aircraft.” A “surface incident” is essentially any other situation in which there’s “airfield movement without permission,” according to an aviation department spokeswoman.
The Total Airport Services driver was ticketed and fired, records show. And the city removed a stretch of taxiway “to eliminate easy access” from a service road to a runway in a further effort to prevent another breach, though regulations already dictated that “all ground motor-vehicle operators must yield the right-of-way to an aircraft in motion.”
The incident involving the Republic Airlines flight attendant happened during the evening last Nov. 21. The Republic employee told authorities the “aircraft came out of nowhere.” He was cited for failing to yield to a plane and reckless driving.
According to the aviation department, “The driver was operating a personal vehicle from the employee parking lot on a defined service road that crossed a taxiway when this incident occurred.”
The department is now “working with the airlines to eliminate this exit from the employee parking lot.”
The flight attendant, who couldn’t be reached for comment, still works for Republic, which operates regional jet service for United, American and Delta, officials say.
O’Hare handles about 2,400 landings and departures each day. The airport is in the midst of a massive, multibillion-dollar, multiyear “modernization” project that’s reconfiguring runways.
But Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans says none of the recent runway and taxiway problems have involved construction vehicles, which are usually kept away from the active airfield.
The vehicles that are allowed into areas where there are moving aircraft generally include those dealing with airline support, security and maintenance, such as snowplows. There are about 15,000 airport employees — working for the city or private companies — who have “driving privileges” on the airfield, though “fewer than 500 are authorized to drive in the movement area — the most secure and regulated area on the airfield,” according to aviation department spokeswoman Lauren Huffman.
Evans, a top aide to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, acknowledges the severity of the mishaps. But she says they are relatively rare and becoming less frequent because of safety measures her agency is taking, some on its own initiative, others in response to the incidents.
The recent safety-related improvements have included:
• Increasing mandatory safety training for drivers of ground vehicles on the airfield.
• Installing tracking devices on more city vehicles on the airfield, allowing for better monitoring by the control tower.
• Improving lighting on the airfield.
Also, the city recently hired someone for a newly created position who will be “integrating safety activities into day-to-day operations and fostering an organization-wide safety culture, where all airport personnel on the ground can participate in identifying possible safety hazards and report them directly” to the aviation department.
Asked about airfield safety at O’Hare, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates U.S. airports, says in a written statement: “The FAA and the city carefully analyze all incidents to identify the underlying cause. Runway safety protocols are adjusted as necessary to incorporate lessons learned through this collaborative exchange of safety information. As with all such programs, we are constantly looking for ways to build on our strong safety record.”
Evans says the ongoing runway project will fix O’Hare’s antiquated “geometry” and that that should help prevent runway and taxiway conflicts.
The city has a driver-safety training program that covers all vehicles with airfield access. It’s overseen by a private company under a $1.2 million annual contract.
The mandatory training presentation this year includes a warning seemingly aimed directly at drivers like the Total Airport Services van driver whose misadventures put him on the paths of moving planes:
“Airports are complicated, and it’s easy to get lost, confused or [disoriented.] As a driver, if you get to a point where you don’t know where you are, it’s time to . . . admit [you’re] lost and call for help, DON’T wait!”