Fire at Aurora FAA Facility Exposed 'Vulnerabilities,' Says Report
A fire that was deliberately set last year at the Federal Aviation Administration's Chicago Center in Aurora demonstrated how the agency's emergency plans and security protocols were insufficient at both the local and national levels, a Department of Transportation Inspector General's investigation has concluded.
A joint statement from six Illinois lawmakers said the Sept. 26, 2014, incident "exposed vulnerabilities in a system that is extremely important to our state and our nation's economic health and security."
The sabotage in Aurora was committed by Naperville resident Brian Howard, a disgruntled contract employee at Chicago Center, who has since been sentenced to prison.
The fire caused more than $5.3 million in damage, "impacted thousands of flights across the region" and prevented the center "from controlling air traffic for more than two weeks," the statement read in part.
The fire destroyed the center's telecommunication system and disabled its ability to transfer flight data electronically. The fire and smoke, combined with water from the fire suppression system, also damaged power sources, phone and Internet services and weather systems.
Contingency plans for the center and the airspace it controls "do not ensure redundancy and resiliency for sustained operations," the inspector general's report said. The FAA's plans at the time of the fire "did not contain procedures for transferring air traffic and airspace responsibilities from Chicago Center to other facilities."
FAA officials during the emergency reverted "to an outdated 2008 plan, to begin the process of restoring normal operations," the report read.
The damage sustained at the Aurora center "highlighted weaknesses in the FAA's current air traffic control infrastructure … For example, the loss of computerized flight data processing was a major constraint to returning to normal air traffic levels during this event."
FAA officials conducted a 30-day review of contingency plans in the wake of the incident, but "significant work remains to prevent or mitigate the impact of similar events in the future," the report concluded. However, "new technologies that are expected to improve FAA's continuity of air traffic operations will not be available for years."
Some of the proposed improvements would lead to the ability to switch over radar tracking and voice and data communications links from one FAA facility to neighboring facilities, to quickly divide up the responsibility for controlling planes. Part of achieving that, in the event of an accidental or intentional outage, requires replacing the manual handoff of an airline flight plan with an automated transfer.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Reps. Tammy Duckworth, Bill Foster, Dan Lipinski, Mike Quigley and Jan Schakowsky, all Illinois Democrats, said in a joint statement Wednesday that the report "underscores that concerns about weaknesses in the air traffic control infrastructure, and a lack of flexibility to respond to such a crisis, are not unique to Chicago, but likely apply at facilities across the country. FAA has a lot of work to do to implement the Inspector General's recommendations."
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