Monday, September 29, 2014

Federal Aviation Administration Chief Seeks Broad Reviews in Wake of Chicago Air-Traffic Issues: Agency to Review Emergency-Response Plans, Security at All Major Air-Traffic Control Sites

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor

Updated Sept. 29, 2014 12:59 p.m. ET

The nation's top aviation regulator called for reviews of emergency-response plans and security safeguards at all major U.S. air traffic-control sites, in the wake of extensive damage allegedly caused last week at a Chicago-area facility by a contract employee.

Sketch out future plans following the incident, Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta said he has asked for a 30-day review of contingency plans for handling aircraft in case of possible future disruptions at major traffic-control facilities.

In conjunction with controllers and technicians, Mr. Huerta said in a speech to an industry conference in Washington Monday, that FAA managers will take a look at the agency's plans to assure both the safety of aircraft and the efficiency of the air-traffic control system.

In his prepared remarks, Mr. Huerta also said FAA's security organization will "review the security protocols at our facilities to make sure we have the most robust policies and practices in place."

If changes are required to improve the system, Mr. Huerta said, "we will not hesitate to do so."

The moves follow a fire allegedly set by a Harris Corp. employee last Friday that knocked out the FAA's center in Aurora, Ill., which normally handles high-altitude traffic around Chicago and portions of other states. Some lawmakers also have called for such reviews.

Brian Howard—a Harris Corp. employee and Naperville, Ill., resident who had worked for the FAA contractor for some eight years and had routine access to the telecommunications gear in the basement of the building—has been charged with starting the fire. He is scheduled to make his first court appearance on Monday. He faces one felony count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

While emphasizing the extent of the FAA's continuing efforts to reduce delays and cancellations resulting from the damaged facility, Mr. Huerta's prepared remarks also touched on a basic issue many passengers may be pondering. "I think the question on many people's minds is how could one incident have such an impact on our system?," he said. The FAA's response, Mr. Huerta indicated, is to reassess the adequacy of current contingency plans and security restrictions while pushing ahead with new technology that would have made it easier to cope with such an emergency.

Leaders of the union representing controllers have called the flight disruptions and rapid-fire contingency plans resulting from the Aurora outage the most challenging issues confronting the nation's airspace since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, which forced a temporary, across-the-board air-traffic shutdown.

Last Friday, the FAA put makeshift solutions in place to distribute the damaged center's workload to other traffic control facilities in the region. Aurora center typically is responsible for covering some 91,000 square miles of some of the country's busiest airspace.

Overall, more than two dozen FAA traffic-control sites have been enlisted to assist in the recovery effort, while some of the Aurora controllers have been temporarily reassigned to other facilities.

The agency also has devised new communication and monitoring procedures—sometimes replacing automated flight plans with manual processes—to keep traffic flowing. Some entities have been working round the clock to inspect and replace damaged hardware, but the FAA's latest projection is that Aurora's controllers won't resume normal operations until the middle of October.

The Chicago area's two largest airports have been particularly affected by delays and cancellations, though their traffic flow steadily improved throughout the weekend and Monday morning. But the ripple effect continues to affect airline schedules nationwide.

In his remarks, Mr. Huerta said, "We are trying to reach as close to normal operations as quickly as possible."

Recent nationwide traffic updates show progress. On Sunday, the third day of the flight slowdown, 723 U.S. flights were canceled, or 3.3% of the 21,700 that were planned, according to, a flight tracking service. More than 77%, or 16,200, arrived within 15 minutes of schedule, but 8.4%, or 1,765, were delayed by more than 44 minutes.

As of Monday midmorning,, another service, said there were 471 U.S. flights canceled and 818 flights delayed. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport once again led the list with the greatest numbers of departing and arriving flights canceled and delayed, and the brunt of the impact was felt by regional carriers that fly on behalf of the major airlines.

—Susan Carey contributed to this article.

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