O'Hare controllers taint good record

September 6, 2000

BY ROBERT C. HERGUTH TRANSPORTATION REPORTER

Many pilots regard O'Hare Airport's air traffic controllers as the finest in the world, and the federal government backed that up earlier this year by giving tower personnel an award for working 14 months without a single mistake.

But the controllers have fallen into a slump, of sorts. Over the spring and summer they made four operational errors, union officials said Tuesday. That's a remarkable figure, considering the facility's previously stellar safety record.

While not denying responsibility, leaders of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) at O'Hare said the stress caused by massive weather-related delays, the temporary absence of controversial but delay-reducing landing procedures and pilots engaging in contract-related slowdowns in recent months was a factor in the error rate.

"It's impacted our job, the complexity of the job, and it's added to the workload," Craig Burzych, NATCA president at O'Hare, said about the problems. "Every day for the last four months we've had a wrench thrown into the system. We've had four mistakes in four or five months, after going 14 months and over a million operations without one."

For that safety record, the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year named O'Hare Tower the National Air Traffic Facility of the Year.

The first operational error was April 13, when an American Eagle jet departed on the wrong heading and ended up near an American Airlines flight. On April 25, an American Airlines flight took off from an O'Hare runway that was closed for electrical work. On June 5, another plane took off at the wrong heading, coming close to an inbound plane.

And on Aug. 6, two planes nearly collided when a United Airlines plane flew over a departing American Eagle flight.

Neither the FAA nor the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the latest incident, immediately returned telephone calls Tuesday.

In the April 25 and Aug. 6 incidents, controller distractions were clear factors, the union said. In the other two, pilots deviated from their paths, and the controllers were cited for not catching it, the union reported.

"One a year is bad," said Joe Jochheim, NATCA vice president.

Luckily, he added, the system has calmed down lately, thanks largely to United reaching a tentative contract deal with the pilots.

Jim McKenna, executive director of the Aviation Safety Alliance, said the jump in errors was a concern, but because there were 67 mistakes nationwide last year at all FAA control towers, "it doesn't appear to be alarming."