By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune Transportation Writer
September 21, 2000

Fifteen air-traffic controllers in the Chicago region were punished Wednesday for staging what a federal investigation determined was a job action that caused a day of major airline delays this summer that the Federal Aviation Administration initially blamed on high winds.

In addition to 30-day suspensions and other disciplinary action taken against the controllers, who were accused of plotting the air-traffic slowdown on July 17 to protest what they considered to be unfair treatment by their manager at the Elgin radar facility, the FAA removed the manager, Kip Johns, and the assistant manager, Gordon Woodahl.

In response to the management crackdown, the controllers kept the number of planes coming into O'Hare International Airport within FAA margins July 17 but at a much slower flow than usual. That caused a huge backup.

In its final report, the FAA said the safety of passengers was never compromised during the slowdown, which occurred on a day the agency said posed no weather-related problems for flying.

But the job action, which the FAA probe did not link specifically to the controllers union, resulted in about 420 delays and more than 155 canceled flights at O'Hare and hundreds more elsewhere as the slowdown's impact rippled across the nation.

"Passengers were severely inconvenienced because of the actions of a small number of controllers who intentionally slowed traffic in the Chicago area," said the FAA, which was aided in the probe by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general.

Some of the 15 controllers, who weren't identified, face suspension without pay, while others will receive letters of reprimand. FAA officials said they removed the two top managers at Elgin to improve the work environment at one of the busier air traffic facilities in the nation.

Controllers at Elgin complained that they were unfairly disciplined for making mistakes while trying to squeeze more planes into O'Hare even though they said the FAA and the airlines encouraged them to tighten space between aircraft.

Officials at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing FAA controllers, said they had not seen the FAA's report and were reserving judgment, though they characterized the probe as "one-sided." Officials with the union local have denied any job action was ever staged.

An official close to the investigation said a review of air-traffic control tapes made it clear that controllers were purposely spreading out the pace of aircraft headed for O'Hare July 17. But the tapes were by no means the only evidence, according to the investigation.

"Some controllers confessed outright during interviews that it was a planned job action. Others didn't even wait for their interviews, but actually approached the investigators," said one official, explaining that some controllers admitted their role to avoid being fired.

Officials said the normal 2.5-mile separation between planes approaching O'Hare was expanded to as much as 6 miles. As a result, instead of up to 100 planes being able to land each hour, the arrival rate dropped to as few as 64 planes.

Planes are routinely spread out to ensure safety when visibility is poor or strong tail winds make it difficult for controllers at the Elgin facility, called a TRACON, to maintain the required minimum separations while they hand off approaching aircraft to the control tower at O'Hare. But the National Weather Service, which provides meteorological information to the FAA, said there weren't any weather-related problems on July 17.

"The investigation ruled out weather and it ruled out any possible connection to a previously scheduled annual review that was taking place at the TRACON," said a high-level FAA official who asked not to be identified.

Charles Bunting, the union president at the Elgin center who strongly denied the charges of a slowdown that were first reported in the Tribune July 18, declined to comment Wednesday.

But Bunting has maintained that "winds out of the west-southwest at 40 knots and windshear conditions on the runways were definitely a factor in determining how far to space airplanes."

FAA officials said their investigation failed to determine who put out the information about strong upper-altitude winds that would have necessitated larger separations between aircraft.

"I think we absolutely had some individuals who were giving the wrong information to the airport," FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said. "I hope it will become very clear that, at least in terms of the management people, the correct weather information was being given out."

Monique Bond, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation, said O'Hare's operations staff received an advisory about the allegedly strong winds from a supervisor in the airport tower. The city and the airlines then unwittingly passed along the incorrect information to passengers.


Several controllers at Elgin who were interviewed Wednesday said they were optimistic that a new management team would restore trust and cooperation at the facility.

"After two long months, a huge load has been lifted off our heads now that the investigation is over," said one controller. "But if [the FAA] expects us to continue pushing the envelope to ram more flights into O'Hare, they'd better be prepared for occasional minor mistakes. If you threaten our livelihood, you aren't going to get what you want from us."