Mpls. air controllers pick up slack after Chicago fire

It’s a bit of a shame that the Federal Aviation Administration is so media shy because we’re betting there are some stories of aviation heroism in this building in Farmington, Minnesota.

Bob Collins/MPR News

It’s the Federal Aviation Administration’s “Minneapolis Center” radar control facility, from which the Upper Midwest’s airspace is controlled.

Most of my controller acquaintances have refused interviews about what’s going on inside, but they’ve taken over for the Chicago facility where an allegedly suicidal man destroyed the computers.

Somehow, aircraft that may have suddenly been “flying blind,” got on the ground and we’re betting the people in this and other similar buildings in the country are the reason why.

In the wake of the Chicago outage, most of the media coverage has focused on the delays encountered by passengers, of course. But the controllers’ ability to get crowded skies uncrowded last week is reminiscent of their work on September 11, 2001.

According to a release from the FAA last evening, several of the controllers from the Aurora facility are being dispatched to work out of Farmington, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Kansas City.

“We have seen a plan of action established by the adjacent centers and other key facilities that is evolving and improving by the hour, and providing safe service that is increasing in efficiency,” controllers’ union Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert said in a news release. “Air traffic controllers are trained to expect the unexpected and make a new plan work safely. The level of resourcefulness and ingenuity that has been demonstrated over the past three days is truly astounding. Controllers and other FAA safety professionals will continue to implement outside-the-box thinking to get the system functioning well while Chicago Center repairs are made.”

Arrival traffic to O’Hare and Midway airports in Chicago is being controlled by Minneapolis and Kansas City centers, the release indicated.

“They are doing a very similar operation as (Kansas City). They have created a sector that works what is called the “Bullz” arrival and two departure routes – one west and one north – as well as the tower operations en route from Milwaukee and Green Bay. ‘We have extra staffing in the facility to help with the situation,” (National Air Traffic Controllers Association) Facility Representative Mike Thompson said. “There are many great people doing many great things with very little to work with.’

It’s the first time since 1963 that the Aurora radar facility hasn’t “worked” the traffic in Chicago.

Here, watch how it’s being done. New airways — highways in the sky — are being used to avoid Chicago.

“People may get delayed,” said Gregory McGuirk, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “People may have to sleep on the floor of the Chicago airport, but the most important thing is that two airplanes don’t come together.”

But the big question now — aside from when things will be back to normal (October 13) — is how did a contract employee for the FAA get into a position to destroy a critical link in the air traffic control system.

“The fact that one person can do this indicates there is a problem in our system and we need to take a careful look at this,” Representative Dan Lipinski said over the weekend.

Yes, why wasn’t there a standby plan?

We already know the answer to that, don’t we? Money.

“You could have a whole other Chicago Center sitting on standby, but the cost of having that full center is enormous,” John Hansman, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells Bloomberg.

Coincidentally, just a day before the Chicago fire, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation was complaining about the cost of an upgrade of the air traffic control system.