By Jon Hilkevitch, Tribune Transportation Writer. Tribune staff writer Rogers Worthington contributed to this report.
July 22, 2000

Bill Cotton was supposed to be the subject of a hero's welcome about 1:40 p.m. Friday at O'Hare International Airport.

Retiring after 33 years at United Airlines, the veteran captain and the architect of an emerging air-traffic control concept called "free flight" was to taxi his last flight to the gate under a rainbow canopy formed from the spray of two waiting fire trucks.

But, as with so many landings at O'Hare lately, Cotton was almost two hours late getting in from Santa Ana, Calif.

The water cannon salute was an impressive display nonetheless, even if Cotton didn't see much of it from cockpit windows.

"The water jets started shooting after the nose of the plane passed through, and I really didn't want to turn my head and crash into the terminal building on my last flight," said Cotton, his sense of humor returning moments after an emotional scene when he exited the ramp.

"This is a remarkable, beautiful homecoming for me."

The festive ceremony at Gate C-19 capped an otherwise frustrating and contentious week for passengers and the airlines in Chicago.

Thursday night, just three days after long delays at O'Hare prompted an investigation into whether air-traffic controllers at a radar facility in Elgin purposely slowed down flights to make a point in a labor dispute, passengers again had to endure backups of up to three hours.

So, as officials from United and the Chicago Department of Aviation prepared to fete Cotton with speeches and a gift of a taxiway lamp taken from the O'Hare airfield, the Federal Aviation Administration was in the uncomfortable position of struggling to explain the latest serious air-traffic snafus.

The FAA said Friday that 381 of the 2,670 flights the previous day at O'Hare were delayed--14 percent of all operations. The weather Thursday--as on Monday too--was favorable for flying, although the FAA said it has not ruled out any factors.

The FAA initially told city officials at O'Hare that "strong upper-altitude winds" were to blame Monday for the cancellation of almost 160 flights and lengthy delays for hundreds more on what seemed to be a postcard-perfect day just about everywhere across the nation. Meteorologists working for the FAA and weather experts at the National Weather Service rejected the high-wind explanation, which FAA officials in Washington later said was never issued by the agency, but by members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

The Tribune reported Tuesday, based on information provided by controllers at the Elgin facility, that some controllers had intentionally expanded the spacing of aircraft bound for Chicago Monday to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with FAA management. The subtle increases in the separation between aircraft, effectively a slowdown while technically still operating "within the book," reduced the number of planes able to land at O'Hare from the normal 80 to 100 an hour to as few as 64.

Under Cotton's plan to rescue the nation from aviation gridlock, planes would not become stacked up in such traffic jams. Instead of following paths, one behind the other, they would fly customized routes that provide the smoothest, safest and most efficient ride. For now, though, air travelers are at the mercy of an outdated technology and the actions of human beings staring into radar screens.

The president of the air-traffic controllers union at the Elgin center denied that any intentional slowdown took place Monday. The union chief, Charles Bunting, suggested that low-level windshear hovering around O'Hare's runways, in addition to the high-altitude winds, were responsible for suppressing the rate of arriving aircraft.

Bunting also said capacity at O'Hare has been decreased by a severe reduction in a procedure in which arriving aircraft land on a runway and stop before the intersection with a crossing runway where another plane is taking off. But the scaling back of the Land And Hold Short Operation began in April 1999--well before this week's incidents.

Thursday's delays, although not as severe as Monday, also occurred during clear, mild weather. And oddly, FAA officials said they could not determine the cause of Thursday's delays, which occurred on the same day the agency asked the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general to send investigators to the Elgin air-traffic control center.

"The investigators are looking to see if there is any connection between what happened Thursday and Monday," said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.

FAA officials said the investigative team will use tapes of radar tracts and voice communications between controllers and pilots to re-create the events both days.

The investigation was expected to take about a week. Sources said FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, who described Monday's suspected controller slowdown as "heartbreaking for me and not the FAA's finest moment," would travel to Chicago to release the findings.

An official in Washington with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said controllers at the Elgin facility, which handles nearly 5,000 flights a day, are "an emotional bunch who are not indicative of all air-traffic controllers. We are trying to give these folks some perspective," said the union official, who requested anonymity. "Never in a million years would the national organization condone this type of action or even give the impression that they were playing with traffic."

A controller at the Elgin facility, known as a Tracon, said the FAA is using the discord as an opportunity to blame the union for the failure of the agency's Spring-Summer 2000 initiative, which was designed to improve air-traffic procedures and avert a repeat of last year's record delays. The program prompted modest improvements early this year, but the more than 16,000 delays reported last month exceeded the previous record high posted last July.