Chicago site sabotage prompts review by FAA

A traveler waits in line Monday at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, where flights were canceled after a fire Friday at an air-traffic facility.
A traveler waits in line Monday at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, where flights were canceled after a fire Friday at an air-traffic facility. The Associated Press

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration ordered reviews of emergency procedures and security as lawmakers questioned how one man armed with gasoline and knives crippled the U.S. air-traffic system last week.

The damage caused by a suicidal telecommunications contractor, who the FBI said severed cables and set fire at a Chicago air-traffic facility, was so severe the FAA has decided to rebuild the center’s nerve system. Of 29 racks of computers driving the communications equipment, 20 were destroyed by fire and water damage, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Monday.

Thousands of flights were canceled starting Friday as the incident forced an evacuation of the FAA’s Chicago En Route Center in Aurora, Ill., which directs high-altitude flights over Midwestern states. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, called for an investigation into the FAA’s emergency protocols at air-traffic control facilities.

“The high volume of flight traffic and the complexity of the Chicago region’s airspace requires quick, efficient responses when emergencies occur,” Durbin and five other lawmakers wrote in a letter Monday to the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general, Calvin Scovel.

Other lawmakers including Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., have also asked for answers on how to better handle or prevent such incidents.

As the FAA tries to get the facility operational by Oct. 13, a security review will examine how employees and contractors gain access to various areas within a facility, Huerta said. The agency also will analyze backup plans for equipment failures, which currently emphasize getting aircraft on the ground safely and transferring responsibility for traffic to other facilities.

“We need to look at how do we maximize the efficiency when we’re doing these handoffs,” Huerta said after giving a speech at a Air Traffic Control Association conference near Washington.

Brian Howard, 36, of Naperville, Ill., was found by emergency responders in the basement of the Aurora building attempting to slice his throat and has been charged with damaging an air-navigation facility, according to the FBI. Prior to the incident, a post appeared on a Facebook page under his name with a rant against the U.S. government’s “immoral and unethical acts.”

For all the inconvenience caused by the incident, no travelers were hurt or planes damaged. John Hansman, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said hardening a system against such an attack, or adding redundancy to limit the disruption, would be costly.

“You could have a whole other Chicago Center sitting on standby, but the cost of having that full center is enormous,” Hansman said.

The FAA handled 50 million flights last year at the 516 airports with towers, according to agency statistics.

Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said “This is one of the most challenging situations that air traffic controllers and other FAA employees have faced since 9/11.”

“The damage to this critical facility is unlike anything we have seen before,” Rinaldi said in an e-mail.

The arsonist targeted an area containing the data transmission system that drives modern air traffic, according to an affidavit filed in court by a FBI agent.

Fiber optics and data cable carry everything from radar signals showing aircraft locations to the digitized radio transmissions that allow controllers to talk to pilots. Without it, FAA centers can’t function. While that data system in some ways makes air-traffic centers more vulnerable to an attack, it also lets the FAA more easily transfer responsibility for controlling flights to other facilities, said Hansman, who has studied the FAA’s system. The facility’s main computer system, which handles radar data and links it to information about each plane’s flight plan, wasn’t damaged by the fire, Huerta said.