The nation’s air travel system began to slowly recover Saturday after an alleged act of employee sabotage at a large regional air traffic control center brought Chicago’s two international airports to a halt.
At the height of the travel misery Friday, more than 2,000 flights in and out of O’Hare and Midway airports had been canceled, sending waves of travel disruption rippling across the country.
Authorities say a contract employee started a fire Friday morning in the basement of a control center in the Chicago suburb of Aurora. Brian Howard, 36, of Naperville, was charged with destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, a felony. When paramedics found him, he was trying to cut his own throat, according to the criminal complaint. The FBI said Howard remains hospitalized and no court date has been scheduled.
As of Saturday morning, total Chicago flight cancelations for the day stood at more than 600 — still a damagingly high number, but an improvement. Southwest Airlines, the dominant carrier at Midway, said it intended to resume a full flight schedule Saturday after it had to cancel all of its Friday flights after the incident.
Lines remained long at O’Hare, a major hub for the nation’s air travel network. Many travelers stranded overnight slept on cots provided by the airport, in scenes reminiscent of winter storm disruptions.
The Federal Aviation Administration facility in Aurora, about 40 miles west of downtown Chicago, handles planes cruising at high altitudes through the air space as well as those just beginning to approach or completing a departure from airports in the Chicago area. During the shutdown, its responsibilities have been transferred to centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis.
The widespread disruption left some aviation analysts, travelers and politicians calling for a smoother backup plan and wondering how one person could be in a position to wreak so much havoc.
“As the busiest airport in the world, Chicago O’Hare International Airport cannot be brought to a screeching halt,” said Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, of Illinois. “I want to see not only an immediate review by the FAA of the screening process at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora, but also a report within 30 days outlining changes the FAA will make to prevent any one individual from having this type of impact on the heart of the United States economy.”
An FAA spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the calls for improvements.
The FAA says its employee background checks include those contract workers like Howard who have access to FAA facilities, information or equipment. Contract employees, like other staff at the Aurora facility, also must have their identification inspected by a perimeter guard and must swipe their cards to gain access to the building, the FAA said.
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