Early one morning last May, a city of Chicago electrician who works at O’Hare Airport was driving on the airfield and crossed Runway 22-Left.
That turned out to be a problem. The runway was “live” — open for departing or landing planes. And he hadn’t gotten permission from air-traffic controllers to be there, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times that say the electrician “completely failed to adhere to standard required protocols.”
A top city official later wrote the Federal Aviation Administration to say this was the electrician’s second runway “incursion” and that the Chicago Department of Aviation “is recommending his termination.”
But he wasn’t fired. Not only did the electrician keep his job, he ended up with just a one-day suspension — and continues to draw a six-figure salary from City Hall.
That’s not at all unusual, a Sun-Times investigation has found. Even when they are involved in runway mishaps that violate safety regulations and in some cases could pose a deadly hazard, city workers routinely escape serious disciplinary action, despite city officials’ contention that they are tough on safety violations.
According to city records, none of the 13 city workers involved in serious runway foul-ups over the past few years was fired, not even after lying about the circumstances of what happened.
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In an incident last Nov. 5, a city truck driver drove onto Runway 27-Left as a plane was preparing to land, and the aircraft was forced “to execute a go-around” — scratch the landing and circle around until the runway was clear, records show.
The truck driver was cited for “criminal or improper conduct,” violating city regulations, “conduct involving job performance or substandard work performance” and “misrepresentation,” according to the records, which say the employee’s “written statement does not fully corroborate the supporting evidence.”
The punishment for all of that? A five-day unpaid suspension, which is typical for city workers who breach active runways, the Sun-Times found.
None of the runway incursions involving city employees resulted in crashes or injuries, according to aviation department records.
Seven employees were given five days off, four got one-day suspensions, and records don’t specify what happened to two others. City officials won’t say whether they escaped discipline altogether and, if so, why.
One of the one-day suspensions came after negotiations between the city and the Teamsters union that represents city truck drivers at O’Hare and has been a sizable contributor to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s campaigns.
On March 2, 2017, a city truck driver was “escorting an aircraft” being towed on the airfield and “failed to ask for clearance and receive clearance” to drive onto a runway, records show. He was written up for infractions including “violation of city policy or rule” and given a five-day suspension.
The Teamsters challenged the punishment. In June 2018, city officials settled the union grievance by cutting the suspension to one day and paying the driver for four days of lost wages since he’d already served the penalty.
Last year, he was paid about $107,000, including overtime, according to the aviation department.
Most of the city workers involved in the runway troubles made more than $90,000 in 2018, with one making $137,000.
• Another O’Hare runway mishap: City worker drove in front of landing jetliner, April 19, 2019
• More than 60 runway mishaps at O’Hare Airport in past 2 1/2 years, March 31, 2019
• Close call at O’Hare: Plane turns into path of 2nd jet, forcing evasive action, March 1, 2019
• Chinese cargo plane strayed dangerously close to departing United jet at O’Hare, Jan. 11, 2019
• Despite O’Hare safety boasts, FAA slammed city’s handling of winter operations, March 9, 2018
• 90 airfield mishaps at O’Hare Airport since 2015, Aug. 23, 2017
Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee, an Emanuel appointee, wouldn’t discuss specific cases. Rhee said in a written statement the department “employs discipline based on the severity of the situation/infraction — including up to termination,” though officials couldn’t point to any cases of a city worker being fired in recent years over a runway-related mistake.
“Discipline is recommended by the supervisor, which normally includes 5 days suspension for incursion violations, however we will move to terminate staff when they demonstrated a pattern of behavior causing serious incidents,” Rhee’s statement said. “Any and all discipline applied for union-represented personnel is done pursuant to the collective-bargaining agreement.”
City officials say they employ “progressive discipline,” with bigger penalties for repeat violators.
Teamsters leaders wouldn’t comment or didn’t return calls.
Rhee says she’s working with city lawyers to “ensure standardized discipline.”
She also took the unusual step of referring an April 2 incursion involving one of her employees to City Hall’s inspector general.
That employee and all other city workers involved in runway incursions in recent years are still working for the aviation department or the Department of Streets and Sanitation, according to Lauren Huffman, Rhee’s spokeswoman.
The electrician given a one-day suspension for the 2018 incursion was involved in another runway incident in 2016, when he drove onto an active airstrip where planes were cleared to depart, records show. He was given “verbal counseling” for that incident‚ which happened about two weeks after he attended a training session on airfield safety that emphasized:
• “Never assume a runway is closed.”
• And only the control tower “can give you permission to go out on a runway.”