Driving vehicles on O’Hare Airport runways lands suspensions for 5 city workers

Two of them got 10-day suspensions without pay. None got fired — not even the city employee involved in two ‘runway incursions’ in a single day, records obtained by the Sun-Times show.

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An O’Hare Airport runway where a mishap in 2020 was blamed on a city worker.

The location of a runway mishap at O’Hare Airport in 2020 that was blamed on a city worker.

Chicago Department of Aviation

Last summer, a city of Chicago employee who works on the airfield at O’Hare Airport drove a vehicle into what’s called a “runway safety area” — and proceeded to do something quite unsafe.

Without clearance, he lingered there as a Korean Air jetliner took off and “overflew his vehicle” at more than 200 miles an hour.

Nobody was injured in the June 25 incident, which landed the city worker — an airport operations supervisor — an unpaid five-day suspension, city records show.

He was one of five city employees to have been disciplined — each ordered to take unpaid time off — over the last three years for O’Hare runway mishaps, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

Another one of those five workers, a motor truck driver, is still on the city payroll and working at O’Hare despite having been blamed for three separate foul-ups — two “runway incursions” in 2020 and a 2021 “surface incident” in which he was driving a city vehicle on an airfield and “cut right in front of” a taxiing aircraft that had “to hit the brakes,” the records show.

A view of O’Hare Airport’s airfield as officials investigated a possible runway incursion by a city employee in 2021.

A view of O’Hare Airport’s airfield as officials investigated a possible runway incursion by a city employee in 2021.

Chicago Department of Aviation

Based on city records since 2020 and interviews, here’s what happened in some of the O’Hare incidents and the disciplinary actions that resulted:

  • An American Eagle jet preparing to land at O’Hare on Oct. 15, 2020, had to abort landing when a city truck driver inadvertently drove his vehicle onto the landing strip.

An air-traffic controller “stated that the driver ... called the north controller and stated that he was on Runway 9C/27C and asked to cross Runway 4L/22R,” the records show. But the driver actually “went onto Runway 27L.”

“We dispatched” someone “to catch up with the driver,” the records show. “He held him at signature until we could get” an aviation security officer “to write a citation and surrender his badge.”

The driver ended up with a 10-day suspension without pay.

His “airfield driving privileges were revoked and not reinstated,” and he retired Sept. 30, according to city officials.

  • Another city employee, a supervisor, was responding to a “bird strike on Runway 9L/27R” on Aug. 21, 2020, but “went to the wrong runway” — which turned out to be one on which air-traffic controllers were “at the time landing aircraft.”

When the driver “noticed an aircraft coming toward him,” he turned off onto a taxiway.

At their nearest point, the vehicle and the plane were 1,180 feet apart, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation, which runs O’Hare and is overseen by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The worker was given a five-day unpaid suspension.

  • The O’Hare truck driver who’s had three missteps was on the airfield Oct. 7, 2020, when he was given permission to cross one runway but accidentally crossed another. The same driver “then picked up personnel near Taxiway Echo” and ended up crossing the same “active runway” a second time.

Because of those two runway incursions, he was handed a 10-day suspension “without pay and lost his airfield driving privileges,” according to a spokesman for Jamie Rhee, Lightfoot’s city aviation commissioner.

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee, who runs O’Hare Airport for Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee, who runs O’Hare Airport for Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

“He was later retrained and recertified to drive on the airfield,” the spokesman said.

On Dec. 18, 2021, the same driver cut off a SkyWest Airlines aircraft on a taxiway, records show.

He told his bosses in a written statement that, “I was on M-2 just past burn pit when I notice a [plane] coming from Charlie Taxiway, onto M-2. I have nowhere to turn around, so I drive into grass and onto service road next to Orchard Pad. The [plane] had a lot of room and they did not have to use brakes.”

The pilot said otherwise, records show.

Rather than be fired for the incidents, the driver, who is a member of Teamsters Local 700, was subject to “progressive and corrective discipline,” city officials said.

The worker in the June 25 incident, a member of Laborers Local 1001, was treated with the same “approach to correct unwanted behavior and deter its occurrence by administering disciplinary actions based upon various factors, including, but not limited to, the severity of the infraction, the number of times it has occurred and the totality of the circumstances surrounding the misconduct,” according to Rhee’s office.

“The incursion was this individual’s first offense,” and the employee “has since resigned as he was a non-citizen unable to renew his work visa.”

A city worker’s account of what happened last year when he was accused of cutting off a plane on a taxiway.

A city worker’s account of what happened last year when he was accused of cutting off a plane on a taxiway.

Chicago Department of Aviation

When the Korean Air plane roared over his vehicle, they were roughly 365 feet apart vertically and 547 feet apart laterally, city officials said.

Rhee declined an interview request.

Her office said: “Safety is the No. 1 priority of every employee at O’Hare. More than 14,000 individuals are certified to drive on the airfield or perimeter roadways, and the incidents in question represent an infinitesimal percentage of the maneuvers made by these drivers each year.

“Nevertheless, each incursion and incident is used as an opportunity to incorporate changes into the training curriculum that all drivers must complete on an annual or biennial basis.”

The city records show there also have been airfield troubles involving airline workers and other government employees.

In one of them, on May 26, 2020, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who was working at O’Hare “to mitigate wildlife hazards” drove “from Taxiway Foxtrot and Papa north to south crossing Runway 10C without notifying tower,” according to records and interviews.

She “was following a coyote,” and “there was not an aircraft on final for the runway, so there was no loss of separation.”

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