By Jon Hilkevitch, Tribune Transportation Writer. Tribune staff writer Vanessa Gezari contributed to this report.
July 18, 2000

Hundreds of airline flights were delayed or canceled Monday at O'Hare International Airport because of a work slowdown by a group of air-traffic controllers, according to controllers and airline sources.

Despite a picture-perfect day for air travel across most of the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration officially blamed "strong upper-altitude winds" for the sluggish rate of arrivals at O'Hare and the subsequent delay of departing flights.

But meteorologists at the FAA and at several major airlines rejected the agency's explanation, saying that weather played no role in Monday's problems.

"The sun is shining, it is 85 degrees at the airport and the heavy delays today of up to 3 hours were not related to the weather or to the recent labor issues with our pilots," said United Airlines spokesman Joe Hopkins, referring to some pilots' refusal to work overtime.

"Strong upper winds?" one meteorologist repeated, laughing. "[The FAA] had better come up with something better, because the aircraft we are talking about here are no longer cruising at the higher altitudes during final [approach] to O'Hare."

The controllers, working at the FAA's approach-control center in Elgin, said they expanded the usual spacing between airplanes landing at O'Hare Monday in response to what they considered hard-line tactics by the facility's new air-traffic manager in dealing with controller errors, as well as with scheduling and sick-leave issues.

The action restricted the number of planes that could pass through the pipeline each hour, which does not compromise safety but resulted in delays.

The slowdown occurred as especially large volumes of passengers descended on O'Hare and other airports after being stranded by bad weather over the weekend in the eastern United States. The airlines had hoped to get back on track Monday.

"They are saying it's the weather again," said traveler Mark Victor, 46, of Naperville, who was delayed nearly five hours at O'Hare trying to get to a business meeting in Los Angeles. "I mean, come on. There's no [bad] weather here and there is no weather in L.A."

A United pilot who was aware of the controller job action and who asked to remain anonymous, added: "There isn't a lot of wind today. It's bad enough when there are thunderstorms and contract disputes. Now the air-traffic controllers are getting into the act."

The manager at the Elgin center, Kip Johns, did not return phone calls. Monday's work slowdown occurred while FAA officials from Washington were at the facility conducting an annual review of operations.

Other FAA officials acknowledged the serious air-traffic delays, but aside from telling the Chicago Aviation Department about the high winds they would not discuss the situation.

"The FAA is continuing to investigate the reason for the lower acceptance rate at the [Elgin] facility," said a brief statement issued by the FAA's Great Lakes office in Des Plaines. It said "flight operations are expected to resume their regular schedule."

Chicago aviation spokeswoman Monique Bond warned passengers headed for O'Hare on Tuesday that "there is no guarantee of a 100 percent recovery."

Bond said the department provided cots and hygiene kits to stranded passengers Monday night--the 12th time the assistance program has been put into effect since June 1, but until now only because of threatening weather.

Monday's protest was not approved by the controllers' union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and it was unclear whether the controller-caused delays would continue Tuesday.

"Our intention is not to inconvenience the flying public by running the planes farther apart," said one controller involved in the job action.

"We're just protecting our livelihoods in an atmosphere that is threatening and demeaning."

Aircraft handled by the controllers at the Elgin facility, known as a TRACON, are usually spaced 2.5 miles apart on their final approach to O'Hare. But some controllers widened the gap to 4 miles, a pointed comment on the penalties recently levied on controllers who violate the minimum distance between planes.

Those violations, while considered serious, are not comparable to a near collision, in which the planes pass so near that pilots must change course.

"The slowdown is pretty blatant, and it is causing us to hold a lot of aircraft and to divert a few planes to other airports," said a controller at Elgin who said he was not taking part in the work slowdown. "We had one plane this morning come in with low fuel because of the delays."

Charlie Bunting, union president at the Elgin control facility, said that although he does not condone the controllers' action he sympathizes with their frustration in trying to meet pressure to maximize efficiency without breaking the rules.

"They just don't want to tighten up the envelope as they used to," he said. "It can be very hazardous to their occupation."

Controllers who commit errors involving the separation standards are removed from duty and face retraining before being allowed to return to work. Some protesting controllers said Johns threatened them with transfer to another FAA facility or firing.

The action Monday meant that instead of 80 to 100 planes arriving hourly, only 64 flights arrived per hour during the morning, although the rate had climbed to about 80 by early evening, officials in the O'Hare control tower said.

But the damage was already done as the airlines made pre-emptive cancellations.

United canceled 20 percent of its schedule between 3 and 8 p.m. at O'Hare because of the job action. Over the course of the day, United scrubbed 57 departures and 69 arrivals.

American Airlines had canceled 21 flights at O'Hare by late afternoon and said it expected that the toll would rise to about 30 cancellations. American officials indicated that they would operate more flights late into the night in an effort to get passengers to their destinations.

American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said Monday's problems at O'Hare would cause delays at other airports, but she could not estimate the impact.

Not counting the other airlines serving O'Hare, just the cancellation of a total of 156 United and American flights, with an average of 150 passengers per plane, would result in 23,400 passengers being inconvenienced.

Operations at Midway Airport were not affected.