One January morning last year, a Chicago Department of Aviation employee called an air traffic controller at O’Hare Airport asking for permission to drive a work vehicle onto an active runway at the busiest airport in the nation to complete an unspecified task.
Even as a Boeing jet in the air above lined up to land on Runway 10-Center on the south side of the airport, the controller cleared the employee to drive across the runway, though not remain on it.
But the city employee drove his vehicle onto the landing strip anyway — setting off alarms and prompting the controller to order the jet to abort its landing, records show.
The mishap was among 62 runway “incursions” that took place at O’Hare in just the past few years, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation found.
Among the investigation’s other findings, based on interviews and recently obtained records:
• While city officials have boasted the airfield is getting safer, records show the number of incursions rose at O’Hare — from 22 in fiscal year 2017 to 26 in 2018. In fiscal year 2019, which began Oct. 1, there have been 14.
• A dozen of the incidents involved city workers violating runway safety protocols by driving vehicles onto active takeoff and landing zones — and workers often ended up with relatively brief suspensions but kept their jobs.
• Once in 2018 and once in 2017, aircraft departed O’Hare without clearance from air traffic controllers.
• Many incursions involved planes making their way onto runways that other aircraft had been cleared to use, with blame sometimes sitting with pilots and sometimes with controllers.
On Aug. 16, a taxiing Gulfstream jet was cleared by an air traffic controller to cross a strip north of the terminals, Runway 27-Left. The jet was told it could cross “at the approach end, then proceed via Hotel 2, Alpha, and advised of traffic on 3-mile final,” according to city records that refer to the airfield pathways that were supposed to be navigated by the plane on the ground as another aircraft was a few miles out, preparing to land.
“Several airport vehicles were blocking the taxiway on the other side” of Runway 27-Left, so the taxiing plane entered “and turned westbound on the runway,” records show. That forced the controller to issue “go-around instructions” requiring the arriving plane to abort its landing when it was within a mile or so of touching down.
On Aug. 9, a jet was given permission to depart Runway 22-Left, a strip that runs diagonally on the southeast part of the airfield. But another plane was arriving, readying to land on Runway 28-Center, an east-west strip, and flew over 22-Left in the process — setting off an anti-collision alarm because of the other plane taking off from there, records show.
Some of the incidents examined by the Sun-Times caused no immediate conflicts with planes but were safety violations nonetheless.
On May 26, 2017, city workers who planned to mow grass on the airfield “requested access” to do so and “had been told to remain clear,” records show.
But a controller then “observed the vehicles mowing up to the edge of the runway,” records show, prompting city officials to issue tickets to two city employees.
Last September, another city worker drove onto Runway 22-Right, which “was active at the time but was not in use” by aircraft, records show.
The Chicago Department of Aviation — the government agency running O’Hare and Midway airports, reporting to Mayor Rahm Emanuel — told the Federal Aviation Administration about that incident and said the city may be “seeking a suspension” against the city employee.
It’s unclear if any action was ultimately taken. Emanuel’s aviation commissioner, Jamie Rhee, wouldn’t comment.
Her spokeswoman, Lauren Huffman, released a prepared statement saying: “The safety and security of the flying public will always be our number one priority for Chicago’s airports. Since implementing new training policies, infrastructure and technology at O’Hare, runway incursions are trending lower than ever, with fewer airfield incidents overall today, and zero severe incidents for the past three years.
“As always, CDA takes any incident that occurs on the airfield very seriously — from low-level movement violations to runway incursions — and no incident is overlooked. Working with our partners at the FAA and the airlines, the CDA remains vigilant on airfield safety, and continues to demonstrate a strong safety performance on its annual certifications and exceeds the minimum requirements for airfield safety.”
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