November 04, 2000 Daily Herald

Controllers attempted to create many plane delays, report says
By Robert McCoppin Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted on November 04, 2000

A publicized intentional slowdown of airplanes in Chicago this summer was only one of several attempts by air traffic controllers to intentionally delay travelers, according to a federal report released Friday.

Controllers also attempted similar slowdowns in the days before the July 17 delay, as well as in 1993 and again in 1996, before that action was headed off, investigators said.

Those revelations came in a federal report that described a deteriorating relationship between air traffic controllers and managers in Elgin involving threats, lies and retaliation.

As a result, investigators concluded, thousands of travelers were held up for hours when 418 flights were delayed at O'Hare International Airport on July 17.

After the investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration in September cited 15 controllers with reprimands or suspensions of up to 30 days.

The summary of the investigation was released Friday in response to media requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

The report describes an atmosphere of bitter sniping between management and union leaders at the Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility, called TRACON.

Controllers there guide hundreds of planes daily from within 40 to 50 miles of O'Hare before handing them off to the control tower or regional controllers.

The report by the FAA and U.S. Department of Transportation, with names blacked out, gave the following chronology:

•July 6: Leaders of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Local C90 from TRACON met July 6 with FAA Administrator Jane Garvey to suggest ways to reduce delays at O'Hare.

Union leaders suggested shortening the distance between planes and giving immunity to controllers who make errors. Both sides called the meeting positive.

•July 9: A union leader gives a letter to management citing the meeting with Garvey and promising to report the manager's performance.

•July 10: The manager responds with a letter saying the union letter contained "threats and accusations," which was posted on the union bulletin board.

•July 13: Union leaders urge controllers to run a "safe operation," which investigators and four controllers said historically means a slowdown.

•July 14: Union members march as a group into the workplace in a show of unity and protest.

•July 15: First signs of an organized slowdown from a controller urging a "safe operation" during a recorded briefing on the job.

•July 16: Additional signs of a slowdown in a recorded disagreement between controllers, in which one controller told another he was not being "safe," and the other controller told him, "Get out of my ear."

After the exchange, radar data showed the second controller increased distance between arriving planes.

Those actions led to few if any delays because of light traffic on the weekend and the use of three runways at O'Hare.

•July 17: Radar and voice recordings show controllers spaced planes five to seven miles apart when three miles was appropriate.

With two runways open, O'Hare can typically land about 80 aircraft an hour, the report said. But on July 17, with two runways, the rate slowed to as few as 60 aircraft per hour.

Though controllers cited strong shifting winds as the cause of the delays, the National Weather Service reported "benign" weather.

•July 18: Union member says if managers don't give concessions such as immunity from errors, "I guess I have no other alternative than to tell the bargaining unit to continue to run a 'safe operation.'æ"

Supervisors said they noticed excessive spacing but "admitted making no attempt to intervene."

After the investigation, the FAA said TRACON Manager Kip Johns and Assistant Manager Gordon Woodahl would be transferred out of the facility.

Union local Vice President Sheldon Williams said he could not comment on the report until he got more information next week.

"It's a one-sided investigation," Williams said. "We're still waiting for more information."