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Foster Highlights Efforts Of Aurora FAA Workers On House Floor

Dec 10, 2014
Press Release

Washington, DC—Today, Congressman Bill Foster (IL-11) spoke on the House floor about the efforts of workers to restore service at the Chicago Air-Route-Traffic Control Center in Aurora after the facility was disabled in an act of sabotage.

Video of Foster’s speech is available here.

Text of Foster’s remarks is below:

Thank you Mr. Speaker.

It is far too common for Members of Congress to come to the floor of this chamber to weave their narrative of incompetent federal bureaucracies, lazy and unresponsive members of the unionized federal work force, and greedy and irresponsible federal contractors. I rise today to tell a very different story.

On September 26, 2014, commercial flights in nearly every airport around this country were delayed or cancelled after the Chicago Air-Route-Traffic Control Center, also known as “Chicago-Center,” in Aurora, Illinois was disabled in an act of sabotage by a disturbed individual.

A fire destroyed the communications equipment that processes flight plan data and enables air traffic controllers at the facility to communicate with pilots in the 91,000 square miles of airspace for which they are responsible.

This could have led to a tragic loss of life. However, due to the efforts of controllers at Chicago-Center and adjacent air traffic control facilities, all planes in the air when Chicago-Center lost communications were landed safely.

Nearly 200 of the controllers at Chicago-Center then traveled to twelve air traffic control towers and terminal radar approach controls throughout the Midwest to help direct air traffic.

At the same time, technicians, mechanics, and electricians were working around the clock to replace the damaged equipment and restore the Chicago-Center facilities.

In total, they replaced 10 miles of cable, dozens of racks of computers and 835 communications circuits to restore the Center’s voice communications, radar, flight planning and weather capabilities.

As a scientist who has installed giant experiments and accelerators on tight time scales, I respect what they accomplished.

Professional restoration crews also removed fire, soot, smoke and water damage from the affected areas.

All of this was accomplished in just over two weeks.

Despite significant challenges, Chicago airports were able to operate at more than 90 percent capacity within days of the fire.

One week after the fire, Administrator Huerta visited Chicago-Center with me and my colleagues in the Senate to assess the progress of the restoration.

While it was clear that the damage had been extensive, I drew confidence from what I saw. Everyone understood what they needed to do for the sake of the traveling public. They set an aggressive schedule for repairs and they kept it.

The air traffic controllers, FAA employees, and contractors who responded to this crisis performed admirably and deserve our sincere thanks and appreciation.

Under difficult circumstances, members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association from throughout the Midwest rose to the challenge and kept the flying public safe.

Within four days of the fire, O’Hare Airport regained its title as the "Busiest Airport in the World." 

I would like to say a special thank you to:

•           Toby Hauck - Chicago Center NATCA Facility Representative

•           Gerry Waloszyk  - Chicago Center PASS Facility Representative

•           Bill Cound - Chicago Center Air Traffic Manager

•           Mike Paulsen - Chicago-Center Technical Operations Group Manager  

And everyone else who worked to restore Chicago-Center.

Because of all of you, by October 13th, repairs were completed and Chicago-Center returned to full capacity, but important lessons have been learned.

The fire that crippled Chicago-Center not only affected flights departing and arriving in the Midwest, but also those flying throughout Chicago’s airspace to reach their destinations.

Between Friday and Sunday, more than 3,000 flights were cancelled at O’Hare alone.

The estimated cost to the airlines has been reported to be more than 350 million dollars in total.

However, what made this crisis unique wasn’t the number of delays or cancelled flights. It was that just one person was able to disrupt the travel plans of so many thousands of people.

The systems that protect the flying public must be made more robust.

Although the fundamental redundancy had been built into the system, the ability for nearby radar systems to see into the Chicago airspace, the FAA must and is improving contingency plans to restore service much faster than it was able to.

In the long term, the best way to ensure the safety and reliability of the national airspace system is to facilitate the transition to the NextGen Air Traffic Transportation System.

Currently, the ground-based radar system is the foundation of national airspace systems.

NextGen will rely on GPS satellites which are more accurate than ground-based radar. It will also include a transition from radio voice communications to a digital network that is similar to mobile phone service.

This transition to NextGen will enable air traffic controllers to re-establish air traffic control services much more quickly after this type of disaster. 

I urge my colleagues to join me in commending the FAA’s response team on a job well done and to support the President’s request for full funding for implementing Next Gen in the 114th Congress.

Thank you, and I yield back.

 

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