FAA, Controllers Coping With Chicago Outage

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Capacity is steadily increasing at airports affected by the sabotage of critical communications equipment at Chicago Center on Friday. As of late Sunday (PDF), the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said 72 flights per hour were getting into O’Hare International Airport and departure delays of 15 minutes in the afternoon were expected to increase to about 30 minutes later in the day. NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said controllers were literally making up contingency plans as they went along coping with what the union says is an unprecedented operational challenge. “This is one of the most challenging situations that air traffic controllers and other FAA employees have faced since 9/11,” Rinaldi said. “The damage to this critical facility is unlike anything we have seen before. We are working diligently to re-establish as close to normal operations as possible to minimize the inconvenience to travelers while keeping safety above everything else.” The FAA also issued a release saying repair, restoration and sanitization of the building and equipment damaged by the arson attack and suicide attempt began early Saturday. The FAA said late Sunday that it will take about two weeks to fix the damage.

Chicago Center’s workload is being divided between four adjoining airspace sectors along with TRACONs and towers in the region. New traffic flow solutions are evolving as the facilities adapt their capabilities and personnel to the new operating conditions. “We have seen a plan of action established by the adjacent centers and other key facilities that is evolving and improving by the hour, and providing safe service that is increasing in efficiency,” NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert said. “The level of resourcefulness and ingenuity that has been demonstrated over the past three days is truly astounding. Controllers and other FAA safety professionals will continue to implement outside-the-box thinking to get the system functioning well while Chicago Center repairs are made.” One of the biggest challenges has been the loss of the automated flight plan system, which has forced the manual input of data into the system. Airlines are faxing flight plans and “everything from that point is then being done hand-written,” said NATCA.