FAA Orders Review of Air-Traffic Security Following Sabotage
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 Sept. 26 as the incident forced an evacuation of the FAA's Chicago En Route Center in Aurora, Illinois, 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, Illinois, 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 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."
Howard is scheduled to appear in federal court Monday.
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.
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 Sunday 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 Sunday, 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 how its data is transmitted, 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, the suspect, would have had to pass through a guarded entry to the facility, and used a key card to gain access to the communications room where the fire was set.
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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