ATC Zero — The Nightmare at Chicago En Route Center

Standard FAA Facility Warning SIgn

Standard FAA Facility Warning SIgn

This week we got yet another lesson on the dangers of consolidating air traffic control facilities in the name of “saving money.” We also got a lesson on the abject failure of privatization, the “think tanks” that push privatization, contracting out maintenance of vital infrastructure, corporate greed, and the Washington corruption that breeds this sort of thing.

Harris Corporation employee Brian Howard allegedly cut radar and communications cables, set fire to vital equipment, and then attempted to go all Norman Bates on himself this past week.

Future Harris Corp. employee Norman Bates

The result is millions of dollars in damages and probably hundreds of millions in lost revenue to the airlines. That Harris contract, by the way, is worth some $331 million. Considering the impact to people, business, and national security, was it worth it? Ask your congressman and senators.  And ask if Harris Corp. is going to foot the bill, although we already know the answer to that one.

While you’re at it, ask where your congressman and senators stand on the consolidation agenda of Congressman John Mica of Florida’s 7th Congressional District, or the privatization of vital national defense infrastructure also pushed by him as well as the completely discredited Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation. For if both these men had their way it is very likely Indianapolis Center, Minneapolis Center, Cleveland Center, and Kansas City Center would not have been around to pick up at least some of Chicago Center’s traffic. Instead, if these two had their way, all those centers would have been in just one facility, and that facility would be the one down.

What would have been the impact of that? See for yourself:

FAA Area Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) Boundaries, a.k.a., “En Route Centers

We get this lesson on a fairly consistent basis. There was the 2003 evacuation of Southern California TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control), which handles approach services to every major airport in Southern California. That disruption resulted from a brush fire and effectively shut down to IFR aircraft nearly every airport in half the state. In the past three years alone we witnessed no less than three evacuations of the Chicago TRACON, which serves O’Hare, Midway, and other Chicago area airports. And in 2007 Memphis Center went ATC Zero because a single critical phone line bundle was cut. That disruption closed off 100,000 square miles of airspace for around three hours.

But that’s all peanuts compared to this latest failure. It will be weeks, possibly even a month, before Chicago Center is up and operational once again.  Meanwhile, adjacent centers are trying to pick up the slack and Chicago Center controllers are being assigned to various TRACONs to handle what part of the load they can.

By the way, we’ve already tasted the devastating failures of at least one of Robert Poole’s ideas — the destruction of this nation’s Flight Service Stations and the services they once provided to general aviation pilots. Read:

During the Cold War no one would have stood for consolidation and privatization of such vital national defense infrastructure, yet we have bought-and-paid-for politicians, “think” tank “experts,” and corporations pushing this agenda every day. Why? Because there’s a lot of money to be had, that’s why.  Government money.  Tons of it. And these people don’t care about national defense, so this latest lesson will be conveniently swept under the door mat once public memory has faded.

But rest assured that this lesson has not been lost on those who would do us harm. They now know our vulnerabilities. They’re probably counting on those vulnerabilities to exploit them in the future. And I’m sure those same people are sitting back, planning and plotting, and all the while cheering on the likes of Robert Poole, the Reason Foundation, and Congressman John Mica, and wishing them all the best of success in their endeavors. Because, as we all know, greed is good . . . if you’re looking to exploit an enemy. That’s why the standard FAA ATC sign you saw above — the one so prominently displayed outside every FAA ATC facility in the nation — should read:

How FAA Warning Signs SHOULD Read

How FAA Warning Signs SHOULD Read



Filed under Aviation Safety, Opinion Piece, R. Doug Wicker

4 responses to “ATC Zero — The Nightmare at Chicago En Route Center

  1. rogparish

    I (mostly) agree with you, but, to be fair, it could just as easily have been a government employee that went berserk.

    Roger (former gov’t.contractor, retired gov’t. employee)

  2. True, except controllers and tech ops (FAA maintenance technicians) are highly vetted, watched, drug and alcohol tested, etc. Contractors are not. Government personnel are supervised directly by FAA managers. Contractors are not. Controllers pass psychological screening. Contractors do not. And, yes, I’m retired from the government and a current contractor.

    And then there’s still that consolidation thing . . . .

    Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. As always, it’s great to see you taking the time to do so, Roger.

    • rogparish

      Wow, really?! The contractors don’t have the same vetting as employees?! I’m used to the Dept. of Energy (former Atomic Energy Commission) where contractors had the same vetting and security clearance as employees. In the Headquarters computer center where I worked we had contractors who had been there most of their working life; when a new company won the bid, they would hire most of the in-place contractor employees, and work would continue on uninterrupted. I guess we were just lucky. I won’t say better-managed! :-/

  3. Bill

    I worked at a facility where the contract help was not only not cleared in any manner, they did not even have a right to work in the USA. They were re-tiling the floor in the equipment room where the equipment used to provide the interface with the incoming radar data on a midnight shift. In another facility, the custodial service had a different person every week it seemed. At two different facilities in the post 9-1-1 era, air traffic controllers were required to use swipe cards and wear security badges. Tech Ops personnel and some contractors had keys to doors that access the same secure areas, bypassing all security protocols. In the pre-9-1-1 era, a Raytheon contractor let himself and a group of his family members into the tower cab without anyone’s knowledge, and although we were short staffed, he demanded a tour of the facility. While these were probably all honest tax paying citizens, the disruption of a group of people walking into an operational area without notice was a safety issue in itself. You can ask any controller, and they will have a story about a contractor doing something that in some small way either distracts control personnel or compromises security because of the double standards being applied. Like Doug says, controllers and technicians are thoroughly screened, however you can’t do much about politics that allows contractors to give unlimited access to people that have not been properly screened.