WGN Investigates: FAA air traffic control security

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

AURORA, Ill. -- Two and a half years ago the take down of a major air traffic control facility here in the Chicago area grounded thousands of flights for weeks. Could it happen again?

WGN Investigates found some unsettling answers.

The FAA has hardened security at its facilities but we wanted to find out about resiliency. Whether it's a fire, tornado, or terrorism that takes down an air traffic control center, has the agency improved its ability to get planes safely and quickly back in the sky. We found the FAA has laid out goals, but many haven't been met.

It all begins with the fire several years back. It started like any other day, then a fire inside the control center that covers aircraft coming into and out of Chicago and across several Midwestern states.

Air traffic controllers were literally in the dark.

No radar. No computers.  No phones.  This was the final call out of Chicago Center that day, “Attention all aircraft on 121.5: If you can hear this, this is Chicago Center. We are evacuating the building due to a fire. If you need any assistance just try to contract the nearest FAA approach facility.”

Over the next two weeks, thousands of flights had to be cancelled.  Hundreds of thousands of passengers were inconvenienced. And that fire – it was intentionally set by an FAA contractor who tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide.

The FAA was faulted for not having an effective back-up plan.

These days the FAA says it has a “goal” of restoring 90-percent capacity within 1-4 days. But a report by the FAA’s own inspector general found: “the agency will continue to face challenges to restoring operations quickly following unexpected events.”

Transportation expert Joe Schwieterman says the FAA stepped-up its contingency planning after the fire in Aurora - but the response has been piecemeal. Lots of goals.  Few tangible accomplishments.

Investigators found centers couldn’t hand-off control to each other in an emergency because often the computer networks couldn’t communicate with each other.

The FAA has said a system called “Nextgen” will fix much of the technology trouble, but the agency’s own inspector general found promised solutions will “not be available for years and the overall cost and time-frame for implementing them is uncertain.”

 

The FAA declined our request to talk about its response to major outages citing security concerns. A spokesperson claimed talking about the Inspector General's findings would expose "highly sensitive" material.

We found the report detailing the problems on the FAA's own website.