FAA threatens controllers over O'Hare delays

By Robert McCoppin
Daily Herald
July 21, 2000

CHICAGO, Illinois (Daily Herald) -- Federal regulators Thursday threatened disciplinary action against anyone improperly involved in delays that affected thousands of travelers at O'Hare International Airport this week.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced it is "conducting a complete and thorough investigation to identify precisely what happened and who was responsible" for the air traffic delays.

"If this investigation reveals any misconduct on the part of FAA personnel, appropriate disciplinary action will be taken."

The investigation follows reports by airline flight crews that traffic controllers - who work for the FAA - purposely slowed planes Monday as part of a labor dispute.

FAA officials said they are focusing on why controllers at Terminal Radar Approach Control in Elgin made planes wait longer to head toward O'Hare. The Elgin facility directs planes from 80 miles out to O'Hare's controllers. Hundreds of O'Hare flights were delayed up to two or three hours, and others were canceled as a result, despite clear sunny weather.

The National Association of Air Traffic Controllers has denied the charge. The union blames high winds, pilots' refusal to follow a controversial landing procedure, the availability of only two runways and the FAA's own requirements for keeping distance between planes.

The Department of Transportation's inspector general staff joined the investigation "to add another pair of eyes and ears," FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said. The investigation was expected to include interviews with controllers and checks of air traffic control actions that day, including audiotapes and records for radar, weather and delays.

Since before air traffic controllers were fired in the 1980s for going on strike, they repeatedly have clashed with the FAA over working conditions.

Kip Johns took over as manager of the Elgin air facility within the past year, but Cory could not say whether there had been any management changes that might have prompted a worker backlash. The union president in Elgin, Charles Bunting, said he was too busy to comment on the FAA investigation.

The delays come during a summer of labor slowdowns that particularly have hurt United Airlines, said Tom Parsons, chief executive of Bestfares.com, a company that tracks the industry.

United has canceled 4,800 flights this summer, citing pilots' and mechanics' refusals to work overtime. Flight attendants have accused mechanics of holding up flights by requiring extra work orders before takeoff.

"You had the worst of Murphy's law," Parsons said. "With the mechanics and pilots and air traffic control on a slowdown, when you combine all three you've got yourself a nice mess."

He compared slowdowns to wildcat strikes, which transportation workers sometimes perform in Europe.

"Chicago is running past capacity," he said. "Any little burp can cause a bottleneck."