July 19, 2000
BY ROBERT C. HERGUTH TRANSPORTATION REPORTER
Federal aviation officials took the bizarre step Tuesday of apologizing to the traveling public for O'Hare Airport delays of a day earlier.
Although the National Air Traffic Controllers Association joined with the Federal Aviation Administration in apologizing, the union's Chicago area leaders angrily denied a report that a group of controllers purposely slowed air traffic to protest work conditions.
"It's a fireable offense, and nobody would do it," said Mike Egan, vice president of NATCA's local at the Terminal Radar Approach Control center in Elgin, from where the delays stemmed. "There was no job action. There was no slowdown."
"We have some problems with, if a controller has an error, the retaliation" by FAA higher-ups, conceded TRACON's NATCA president, Charles Bunting. "But that was not the impetus."
Even so, the FAA, and the national office of the union, are investigating whether a work action was to blame, officials said.
TRACON controllers on Monday increased the separation between airplanes, sometimes doubling the distance from three to six miles. Hundreds of delays and cancellations resulted, although operations were back to normal Tuesday.
Bunting insisted the reasons weren't sinister: Unusual winds were causing an "accordion effect" with landing aircraft, so planes needed more spacing. Also, controllers were taking things a bit more slowly because an FAA team was conducting an annual inspection of the site, which has not always passed with flying colors, he said.
A delay-reducing landing tool that allows planes to land on a runway that intersects with another strip where planes are simultaneously departing wasn't in use, he added.
The National Weather Service reported that wind speeds were normal on Monday, and a meteorologist said he saw "nothing unusual" that would have caused delays. But Bunting said weather data also comes from pilots, not just the agency.
FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said the arrival rate was set in the morning at a relatively normal 80 flights per hour, and he doesn't think his agency reduced that level later in the day as the union claims. Union and FAA officials met Tuesday to discuss the situation.
"Air traffic is back to normal and each group will examine the issues (that) led to the disruption and will take appropriate action," they said.