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FAA to Review Safety at Air Traffic Control Centers Following Chicago Fire

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | September 29, 2014
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[Avionics Today 09-29-2014] The FAA is working with its Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) and technicians to restore normal flight operations in and out of Chicago-area airports following an incident that occurred at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZAU) in Aurora, Ill. Authorities have confirmed that an FAA contractor reportedly set a fire in the basement of the regional ATC center leading to damage that caused the cancellation of more than 3,500 flights. According to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, the fire caused extensive damage to the Chicago center’s central communications network. 
Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Photo: Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
The agency expects to have the Chicago center restored to full operating status by Oct. 13. Until then, controllers that work at the center are traveling to high altitude air traffic facilities at the four en route centers that border the ZAU airspace, including the ZAU airspace; Cleveland Center (ZOB), Indianapolis Center (ZID), Kansas City Center (ZKC), and Minneapolis Center (ZMP), according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). 
“While the operational changes enable us to build traffic, we also need to restore Chicago Center itself. The damaged communications equipment needs to be replaced entirely. While crews are cleaning the area damaged by the fire, others are reconfiguring space on a different floor, to house the new equipment. We have brought in our best technicians from around the country to expedite the replacement of the central communications network at Chicago center,” said Huerta. 
Huerta gave the updates on the situation in Chicago during a speech at the 59th annual Air Traffic Controller Association (ATCA) conference. The FAA chief told conference attendees that the agency created direct communications between all four regional centers that handle flights above 18,000 feet, allowing them to increase air traffic flow into the region. With the altered operations, controllers have been able to safely manage about 60 percent of typical traffic at O’Hare, Chicago’s busiest airport, and more than 75 percent at Midway. 
In a separate statement, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi called the incident “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. Since the first moment when radar scopes went dark at Chicago Center Friday morning, controllers have ensured the highest level of safety at all times,” said Rinaldi. “We know this has been a tremendous disruption to the travel plans of many people. 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.”

Over the next 30 days, the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, in collaboration with NATCA and Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), are working to review the agency’s contingency plans at all major facilities. 

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