Air-Traffic Vulnerabily Examined in Fire Halting Flights
The havoc created by a suicidal technician at a Chicago-area flight-control center has some lawmakers asking how a single person armed with gasoline and knives could bring down part of the U.S. air-traffic system.
Damage caused last week by a man police said was trying to disable the facility and kill himself was so severe that the Federal Aviation Administration has decided to rebuild the center’s central nerve system from scratch, the agency said in an e-mail.
“The fact that one person can do this indicates there is a problem in our system and we need to take a careful look at this,” Representative Dan Lipinski, a Democrat from Chicago who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an interview with a Chicago TV station.
Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, told the TV station he would demand answers from the FAA on its plans for handling such a failure.
The FAA is ``reviewing its operations systems and contractor safety protocols to determine where improvements can be made,'' the agency said in an e-mailed statement in response to the lawmaker concerns.
Thousands of flights were canceled or delayed across the country after a man identified by the FBI as a telecommunications contractor who worked at the the Chicago En Route Center in Aurora, Illinois, severed cables and started a fire in the basement early on Sept. 26. The center, one of the nation’s busiest, handles high-altitude flights over several Midwestern states and had to be evacuated.
Brian Howard, 36, of Naperville, Illinois, was found by emergency responders in the basement attempting to slice his throat and has been charged with damaging an air-navigation facility, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 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.
A day after the fire, controllers at a similar center controlling high-altitude traffic near Indianapolis began handling flights in some Chicago Center’s airways, Doug Church, a spokesman for the air-traffic controllers union, said in an e-mail. Controllers at centers near Cleveland, Minneapolis and Kansas City were doing the same thing, Church said.
The FAA was sending Chicago center controllers to other area facilities to work traffic because of their knowledge of local flight routes, the FAA said in a Sept. 27 e-mail
“The FAA is using all the tools at its disposal to safely restore as much service as quickly as possible,” the agency said.
Newer telecommunication technology means that controllers no longer have to be located next to the radio antenna and radar to handle traffic, Hansman said.
In Australia, the government has built two air-traffic centers on opposite ends of the country that can each handle the other’s traffic in an emergency, he said. While the U.S. facilities can’t switch as seamlessly, they are more flexible than just a few years ago, he said.
As a result of the FAA’s efforts in the past three days, less than 30 percent of Chicago O’Hare International’s traffic was canceled by yesterday at 3 p.m., down from almost half on Sept. 26. O’Hare was the second busiest U.S. airport by traffic in 2013.
Midway International in Chicago had less than 20 percent of flights canceled yesterday, compared to more than half on the day of the fire.
John Canoles, who headed emergency operations for FAA’s air traffic service from 2004 to 2006, said he didn’t think the attack indicates the system is too vulnerable. While there have been disruptions, contingency plans were put in place and the agency has been able to adapt, he said. The cancellations haven’t been as bad as some weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy, which struck the New York region in 2012, he said.
“Weather causes the vast majority of delays,” Canoles said. “There are certainly blocks of days that are worse than this.”
All FAA air-traffic facilities have multiple backup systems, from emergency generators to redundant channels for data transmission, according Canoles. Failures still occasionally occur and controllers are trained to manage traffic in emergencies without compromising safety, he said.
Even with those redundancies, there’s almost no way to make the system impervious to an insider who knows the intricacies of the system’s data-transmission system, he said.
The disruptions have to be put into the context of airline safety, Gregory McGuirk, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, said in an interview.
“People may get delayed,” said McGuirk, who worked as a center controller for 25 years. “People may have to sleep on the floor of the Chicago airport, but the most important thing is that two airplanes don’t come together.”
Robert Mann, a former airline executive who is a consultant in Port Washington, New York, said the FAA needed to create even more backup systems.
“It’s clearly not an IT network where it automatically restores itself,” Mann said in an interview.
Another area sure to come under review is the FAA’s security, Jeff Price, an aviation security consultant in Arvada,Colorado, said in an interview.
“I do think this incident will be a call to action to review security at FAA facilities, because unfortunately now that one person has done this, others will get the idea,” Price said.
Howard had passed a background check, a government employee said in an e-mail. The official, who wasn’t authorized to talk about the agency’s security policies, asked not to be identified.
Canoles, who helped develop stepped-up security for air-traffic facilities after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said “You can’t protect against it all unless you’re going to lock it down and put iron bars against the doors.”
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