Despite O’Hare safety boasts, FAA slammed city’s handling of winter operations
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In November, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s aviation commissioner Ginger Evans boasted that O’Hare Airport operates so well in winter that it’s “recognized in the aviation industry as a leader” for “safe and efficient operations.”
Earlier in the year, though, the Federal Aviation Administration had taken the unusual step of issuing the city of Chicago a “warning letter” over a series of weather-related mishaps at O’Hare in 2016 and 2015, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show — including one on Dec. 28, 2015, in which city crews allowed “aircraft to continue to use” a runway “when pilot reports indicated conditions were deteriorating.”
As planes took off and landed on the airstrip that day, several of them “lost” parts, in addition to one that aborted takeoff after hitting an unidentified object on the runway, according to an FAA letter that doesn’t specify whether snow or ice made for choppy pavement.
But the letter made clear that Chicago’s Department of Aviation — the city agency run by Evans that oversees O’Hare and Midway Airport — hadn’t done what it should have. The FAA investigation “revealed continuous monitoring procedures were not effectively in place when conditions were deteriorating on Runway 10L/28R,” an FAA official wrote.
The federal agency also determined that the aviation department didn’t follow its own federally approved snow-response plan, instead “allowing aircraft to continue to use Runway 10L/28R for arrivals and departures when pilot reports indicated conditions were deteriorating.”
Evans’ staff also failed to provide “updated runway conditions in a timely manner when pilot reports indicated that conditions appeared to be deteriorating during a significant meteorological event,” the FAA letter said.
Records indicate there was rain and “wet snow” at O’Hare at that time.
The FAA also cited poor communication about runway conditions with airlines in separate plane-sliding incidents at O’Hare that winter.
Two days after each of those instances in which planes lost parts, a United Airlines jetliner landed at O’Hare and slid off the end of the runway.
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A website operated by the aviation department was supposed to provide accurate “braking action reports” for runways, as well as “surface conditions.” But the FAA said that, at “the time of the excursion,” the city’s website “reflected Runway 9L/27R was clear and dry with good braking action,” though that “conflicted with” other information being disseminated and the “thin wet snow” on the ground.
The FAA found similar problems at the time of a plane-sliding incident on Jan. 22, 2016, and two others on March 1, 2016, according to the FAA’s warning letter. In one of those cases, a smaller jet landed on a snowy strip and “went off pavement at the departure end of the runway,” according to the FAA. “At least 90 minutes before the incident,” city crews were “aware of changing airfield conditions and failed to inspect and/or update Runway 9L/27R conditions to reflect the contaminants.”
The FAA didn’t directly blame these problems for the incidents but said they showed the airport “was in noncompliance with certain aspects” of its “snow and ice control plan.”
But other recently obtained records and interviews show the city’s failure to keep the runways clear was a likely factor in the skidding planes, even though Evans’ office initially downplayed that possibility.
According to an FAA document on the Dec. 30, 2015, incident, “evidence was presented that reinforced weather and runway conditions as the causal factors of this incident.”
The same was noted for the Jan. 22, 2016, incident.
United spokesman Charles Hobart says his airline concluded “that weather and airport field conditions were contributing factors” in several sliding “events” involving his company’s planes.
Other problems also likely played a role in some skidding incidents — including pilots “inadvertently” choosing a less-powerful brake setting in one instance and flying while fatigued, records indicate.
Beginning in 2016, as the FAA was investigating the incidents, the aviation department made changes to its snow-response plan, which dictates how city crews are supposed to deal with snow and ice on airfields. Those included new criteria for closing runways in snowy weather, better runway monitoring for snow and ice and the expanded use of sand to help with traction, records show.
Evans would not speak with a reporter. Her agency released a written statement that said, “While there are a number of factors at play in each” of the cases, the aviation department “did not waste any time and immediately began its own review to investigate what occurred (snow conditions, staffing in place, equipment in place, conditions reported).
“In 2016, we undertook 18 separate actions to enhance our snow protocols, addressing every recommendation by the FAA with efforts taken to ensure our procedures not only meet, but exceed, regulatory requirements.”
A spokesman for the FAA — which regulates U.S. airlines, airspace and airports — says warning letters “are typical any time we find something on an inspection,” giving the airport operator “a chance to correct a deficiency.
“We could propose civil penalties or move to suspend or revoke a facility’s operating certificate, but the warning is usually sufficient,” FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford says.
Aviation experts say it can be tough for a large, complex airport like O’Hare to deal with severe winter weather.
Still, Keith Mackey, a Florida pilot and aviation safety consultant, says, “They have to keep things safe.” Getting a warning letter from the FAA is “embarrassing,” Mackey says.
“The runways weren’t clear,” says Mackey, who reviewed government records obtained by the Sun-Times. “It has to be assumed that the protocols either weren’t adequate or weren’t being followed. A catastrophe out there could have happened in any of these cases.”
Lauren Huffman, Evans’ spokeswoman, says there have been no more skidding incidents since the improvements were made.