City Council hearings demanded on FAA backup plan

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The political piling on continues — just before the FAA is expected to get its Aurora air traffic control center back to full capacity next Monday after a fire set by a disgruntled contract employee.

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) are demanding City Council hearings to examine what, if any, contingency plans federal aviation officials are developing to “install a back-up system” at the damaged facility.

Their resolution, introduced at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, notes that the devastating fire cancelled thousands of flights across the country and cost Chicago $123 million in “lost economic activity.”

Even President Barack Obama was forced to avoid O’Hare Airport and fly into Gary to avoid putting added pressure on a system brought to a “near stand-still” when flight plan information had to be entered manually, the resolution states.

The resolution states that there is a “need for an immediate back-up system to prevent similar disruptions,” yet FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has said a new system is “at least two years away from introduction and may take a decade to be fully implemented.”

“It is absolutely unacceptable in this era of sophisticated technology to tell the flying public that, when a massive catastrophe like this occurs, there is no automated back-up system,” Burke was quoted as saying in a news release.

“It is equally unacceptable to tell a major aviation hub like Chicago that the public may have to wait a decade for a system to be in place.”

An arson fire on Sept. 26 at the Aurora center grounded all flights into and out of both major Chicago airports. That led to thousands of flights being canceled, as well as thousands of travelers stranded as the ripple effects hit the entire country. The system is still not back to normal and won’t be until Oct. 13, according to the FAA.

Last week, the piling on was coming from an even higher place.

An exasperated Mayor Rahm Emanuel complained about how long it’s taking the FAA to get the Aurora center back to full capacity.

Emanuel said he was even more frustrated by the absence of a back-up system that would have prevented the attack from crippling so much of the nation’s air travel.

“How can this happen? How can you have an airport that is so integral to the national and international system with no back-upcapacity, that one individual can have this impact?” Emanuel said then.

“First task: get it up and running. Task B: Take a deep breath and get immediately studying what is it you need to do so you can’t have one individual for whatever reason —upset at his employer —take down a system and we have no capacity as a city… and country to deal with this.”

The man accused of setting the blaze and then trying to kill himself in the basement of the Aurora facility is Brian Howard, 36, of Naperville. He is in custody, facing federal charges.

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