FAA leery of O'Hare delays

July 21, 2000

BY ROBERT C. HERGUTH TRANSPORTATION REPORTER

The federal government is stepping up its investigation of the air traffic slowdown at O'Hare Airport, which continued Thursday as investigators arrived, officials said Thursday.

The U.S. Transportation Department's inspector general's office, with the Federal Aviation Administration, will try to determine whether air traffic controllers purposely slowed arrivals Monday to protest work conditions.

The involvement of the inspector general's office could mean federal officials believe there is some truth to reports--angrily denied by the controllers' union--that a job action was the cause.

"Based on information the FAA has obtained on the air traffic slowdown that occurred at O'Hare on Monday . . . we are conducting a complete and thorough investigation to identify precisely what happened and who was responsible," an FAA statement said.

The inspector general's office "will assist us in this investigation. If this investigation reveals any misconduct on the part of FAA personnel, appropriate disciplinary action will be taken. We reiterate our apology to passengers and airlines affected by the slowdown."

FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said more delays occurred Thursday, despite the favorable weather.

But Charles Bunting, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at the Terminal Radar Approach Control Center in Elgin, where the delays originated, said investigators will find the hundreds of cancellations and delays were caused by weather and added caution exercised by controllers because an FAA evaluation team was there conducting an annual review.

Meanwhile, a radar display system has been installed at the Waukegan Regional Airport's control tower and should be operational by July 31, Molinaro said.

The system, called a Terminal Automation Radar Display and Information System, was called for after two Waukegan-based planes collided over Zion on Feb. 8. Three people, including radio personality Bob Collins, were killed.

A student pilot returning to the airfield may have turned too soon before the airplanes hit. But federal investigators also cited the lack of radar as a possible factor in the accident.

The FAA, which ignored previous requests for a system, agreed to install the $40,000 to $45,000 system. At the time of the accident, the controllers in the tower, working for a private company, relied on their eyes and ears to direct planes.

Daniel Bitton, who co-owned Collins' plane and was his close friend, said he is "delighted" that the system is installed. "I regret that it took three lives to make this happen. I'm thoroughly convinced that this will prevent other similar occurrences."