Errors rise in flight control
Tower crews cite heavier workloadBy Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune transportation reporter
December 5, 2003, 8:21 AM CST
Air-traffic errors in the Chicago area have increased six-fold this year, and planes waiting for parking gates are jeopardizing safety at the city's two airports, according to data released Thursday and concerns raised by controllers.
Regional controllers handling planes near O'Hare International Airport and Midway Airport committed 24 errors so far this year that resulted in violations of the required minimum spacing between aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
Eight of the errors made by controllers at the FAA facility in Elgin occurred since Oct. 1, corresponding with a surge in air travel that is expected to continue expand next year.
Four controller errors were made in 2002, and eight were made in 2001 at the facility. In 2000, before the steep downturn in the airline industry caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks a year later, the FAA recorded 10 errors at the facility.
"Traffic demands are rapidly increasing, and the error rate is symptomatic of the problems. The safety margins over Chicago skies are at the thinnest they have been," said Ray Gibbons, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at the facility.
Traffic at O'Hare and Midway has bounced back more vibrantly than that of at most major U.S. airports, surpassing the passenger loads and flight volumes seen of before the terrorist attacks. Recent trends hint that new records could be set next year.
The increasing congestion in the skies and on the ground, however, is a clear sign the flight growth the clearest sign yet that the dramatic growth in flights threatens a return to the crippling delays that paralyzed commercial aviation before the attacks.
Airlines are reporting on-time arrival rates of 85 percent or better this year, but the achievement is helped because airlines pad the amount of time scheduled for flights.
Passengers who depart se flights depart one city an hour or more behind schedule but , only to arrive at their destination "on time",'' are beginning to complain again.
After running out of space on taxiways, controllers at Midway routinely line up planes filled with passengers on inactive runways until gates at the terminal are freed up, said veteran controller Kevin Rojek. He said the situation creates the potential for danger if in the event a pilot makes a wrong turn taxiing, or if an airplane breaking through the clouds layer were to land on the wrong runway.
"It's harder and harder each day to get planes safely in and out of the airport," said Rojek, president of the controllers union at Midway.
In what has become an almost daily occurrence, flights to O'Hare were delayed through the day Thursday. It wasn't due to weather problems at other their departure airports — O'Hare simply could not accommodate the number of arriving flights, scheduled to arrive at O'Hare exceeded what the airport could accommodate, according to an FAA airport status report.
At 6 p.m. Wednesday at O'Hare, more than 50 aircraft were parked on holding pads waiting for other aircraft to board passengers and leave vacate gates, officials said.
"Traffic is skyrocketing, and we are back to the craziness of pre-Sept. 11," said Craig Burzych, the controllers union president at O'Hare. "Controllers are making mistakes because they are constantly pounding airplanes in and out. There is no time to catch up."
Passenger traffic is up 5 percent at O'Hare and 9 percent at Midway this year compared with last year, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.
O'Hare has more than 2,700 takeoffs and landings daily, up from about 2,500 flights a day before 9/11 the terrorist attacks, the Aviation Department said. Airlines serving O'Hare added 150 flights a day in November and 150 more new flights are planned for January, officials said.
"We always knew traffic would recover," said Chicago aviation spokeswoman Monique Bond. "The consolidation of American Airlines' St. Louis hub has brought more flights to O'Hare, and the recovery of United Airlines from bankruptcy is adding to the numbers."
On the Southwest Side, about 1,000 planes arrive and depart from Midway each day, compared with to 850 flights before the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said.
One reason for the controller error increase may be that the airlines are concentrating more flights into certain times hours of the day, said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro. He said a definitive explanation for the errors has not been established.
"We are beginning to see that we are losing our peaks and valleys [in the flow of arrivals and departures]. It's becoming all peaks," Molinaro said.
But he said safety is being maintained.
"The standards for separating aircraft are very conservative. Even when the standards are compromised, we are very confident that safety is not compromised," he said.
Gibbons, the controllers union president, said reasons for the higher error rate include a more complicated mix of large jetliners, small regional jets and corporate planes flying at different speeds. Each type of aircraft requires different spacing distances to avoid the dangers of wake turbulence from the aircraft in front of it.
Gibbons also said staffing losses in fully qualified controllers, caused by retirements and illnesses at the Elgin facility, has affected performance.
The FAA said 96 controllers are working live traffic at the facility, four controllers short of the agreed-upon level, and that more controllers are being hired.
FAA tells Meigs closing's impact
Air-traffic control miscues increase in wake of action
By Jon Hilkevitch
It's too late to restore Meigs Field, but legislation pending in Congress would make it more difficult for municipalities to shut down airports without advance notice like the Daley administration did last March, the chief of the Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday.
Language in legislation to authorize FAA funding in 2004 would require cities to provide at least 30 days' notification to the federal agency before closing an airport, or face penalties of $10,000 for each day the airport remains closed.
The time would allow the FAA to contest an airport closing, and if that failed, to make alternative plans to ensure smooth air-traffic operations.
Mayor Richard Daley ordered bulldozers to demolish tiny Meigs' runway in the middle of the night March 30, citing terrorism concerns. The FAA was not advised of the move, which has created difficulties in the region's air-traffic control system due to the increased number of small planes using Midway Airport and other airfields instead of Meigs.
"[The closing of] Meigs is one of those things that has really been a terrific problem from all of our standpoint," FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said in a telephone interview Tuesday with transportation reporters in Illinois. "The legislation would prevent an airport like that from being converted without other considerations being made."
Controller errors at the FAA's facility in Elgin, which directs planes on approach and departure paths, have increased from four in 2002 to 20 so far this year.
"The closure of Meigs and the new mix of small and large aircraft we are seeing is bogging down Midway and making our job incredibly more complex in the airspace around Midway, Meigs and O'Hare," said Ray Gibbons, president of the controllers union at the Elgin FAA center.
Gibbons said the increased number of errors can be attributed to controller understaffing, but FAA officials contend recent hiring has maintained staffing at the correct levels.
Blakey, who said earlier this year that the closing of Meigs left her "heartbroken," said the FAA has no legal recourse to reopen the lakefront airport, which was on land owned by the Chicago Park District. In addition, she said there are no plans to resume staffing Meigs' air-traffic control tower to facilitate safer operation of aircraft traversing the lakefront.
Blakey expressed concern that congressional approval of the FAA reauthorization bill is being delayed by a standoff over privatizing up to 69 additional airport towers in the air-traffic control system. A 30-day extension of the current legislation expires this week.
DuPage Airport in West Chicago, Palwaukee Municipal Airport in Wheeling and Aurora Municipal Airport are among the airfields that would be eligible to be run by private contract towers under the legislation. Some 219 small airports already use contractors to direct air traffic. The FAA said it has no plans to privatize more airports.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing FAA controllers, argues privately operated control towers are less safe than FAA-staffed towers, and the union fears any expansion of the contract tower program could lead to privatization of the entire U.S. air-traffic control system.
Blakey said there are no plans for the FAA to get out of the air-traffic control business. She said it is more cost-effective, and equally as safe, for the agency to hire contract-tower companies to operate some smaller airports.
Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune
Aviation bill designed to stop sudden closures like Meigs
October 29, 2003
One aspect of a sweeping aviation bill being taken up by Congress is aimed at preventing airport closures along the lines of the Meigs Field incident, the Federal Aviation Administration's chief said Tuesday.
Marion Blakey described Meigs' sudden closure by Mayor Daley as "one of those things that's really been a terrific problem . . . because ... it's left a hole" for the general aviation community.
The FAA's reauthorization bill would require the FAA be notified in advance of such closings, as well as in-depth study, and violators would be fined.
"In the Beltway it's referred to as 'the Meigs provision,' " an FAA spokesman said.
The bill also has language some fear would lead to privatizing more air traffic control functions in the Chicago area and around the country. Blakey said "there is no plan ... to reconsider the status" of federally staffed towers at Palwaukee, DuPage and Aurora airports, but believes the FAA needs flexibility to outsource functions as needed in the future.
A spokesman for the air traffic controller union believes
additional privatization would decrease safety, but is hopeful Congress will
strip out the controversial language backed by the Bush administration.
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