By Jon Hilkevitch, Tribune Transportation Writer. Tribune staff writer Gary Washburn contributed to this report.
July 19, 2000

Airline operations returned to normal at O'Hare International Airport on Tuesday, while City Hall demanded an explanation from the Federal Aviation Administration for the lengthy delays that affected hundreds of flights a day earlier and were traced to a radar facility in Elgin.

The FAA said it was still investigating the reason that air-traffic controllers at the agency's approach-control center in Elgin slowed the rate of aircraft landings Monday from the usual 80 to 100 planes per hour to as few as 64.

The one-day slowdown, which controllers said was a wildcat protest by some controllers, caused flights to arrive and depart late at O'Hare. Controller sources said the job action was in reaction to the way a new manager at the Elgin facility was dealing with controller errors.

On Tuesday, the controllers union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said no controller intentionally slowed down operations as part of a job action.

But Charles Bunting, the union president at the Elgin facility, said that controllers are worried about an escalation of "retaliation and punishment" by FAA management in response to technical mistakes that do not endanger lives. A controller in May was decertified and required to undergo 50 hours of retraining because of an error that placed two aircraft too close to one other.

"It's a major concern," Bunting said. "We're always asked to press the envelope for the agency, which we do. Unfortunately, we are subjected to disciplinary and recertification actions."

Bunting offered a new explanation for Monday's delays: low-level wind shear swirling around several of O'Hare's runways.

"The winds were definitely a factor," Bunting said. "There was a wind shear effect going on as well as 40-knot winds at altitude pushing the aircraft."

FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said "it's the first I've heard of that" when asked whether the dangerously unpredictable cross-winds known as wind shear were a factor Monday. FAA officials at O'Hare's control tower said detection equipment at the airport issued no alerts Monday.

The low-level wind shear explanation followed a statement issued by the FAA that winds at high altitudes prompted controllers at the Elgin center to expand the optimal spacing between planes from 2.5 or 3 miles to more than 4 miles Monday.

The change dramatically constrained O'Hare's capacity.

As a result, nearly 160 flights were canceled and hundreds were delayed for up to three hours.

Many passengers unable to get out of Chicago spent the night in hotels, while 47 travelers slept on folding cots at the airport, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

The FAA's contention that the delays were prompted by strong winds in the upper atmosphere was dismissed by meteorologists at the FAA, the airlines and the National Weather Service.

"There is no way these weak summer winds would have delayed jet aircraft," said meteorologist Alan Fisher at the weather service.

Mayor Richard Daley said Tuesday that he expects accurate information from the FAA.

"They should not mislead anyone," the mayor said. "... If there is a problem, just tell us the truth. People understand that. If it's a job action, it's a job action."

The FAA and the controllers union apologized Tuesday for the disruption and promised to "take appropriate action" once the investigation is completed.