FAA chief to visit sabotaged Chicago-area facility

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

CHICAGO (AP) — The head of the Federal Aviation Administration will visit a regional control center sabotaged by a fire that shut down Chicago's two international airports and snarled air traffic nationwide, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Thursday.

Agency Administrator Michael P. Huerta will visit the center in Aurora, Illinois and meet with Illinois' congressional delegation on Friday, a week after a contract employee started a fire in the basement telecommunications room before attempting to commit suicide by slashing his throat, Durbin said. The fire caused widespread damage, and the FAA said it would replace the entire central communications network at the center.

Huerta has said crews are working around the clock to replace equipment, and he hopes to return the facility to full service by Oct. 13.

Although the center's responsibilities have been transferred to centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis, delays and cancellations have persisted. On Thursday, a combination of bad weather and lingering effects of the fire caused about 750 flight cancellations at O'Hare and Midway international airports, Chicago aviation officials said.

At the height of the travel misery last Friday, more than 2,000 flights in and out of the airports were canceled, causing a ripple effect that disrupted travel across the country.

Lawmakers have called for an investigation into how the employee entered the building with a suitcase without causing suspicion. Huerta has said the FAA is reviewing security at all of its facilities, as well as contingency plans for unexpected events like the fire. 5 to 10 years

"We need to get the system back up and running and then take a hard look at the weaknesses in the system that failed to prevent this incident," Durbin said in a written statement. "Not only was air traffic severely disrupted, but the safety of workers at Chicago area facilities and passengers flying to and from Chicago was jeopardized."

Brian Howard, 36, of Naperville, is being held without bond on charges of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, a felony. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

Howard, who had access to the control center via a swipe card, entered around 5 a.m., and about 30 minutes later posted a suicide note on Facebook, according to a federal criminal complaint.

Minutes later, someone at the facility called 911 to report the fire. A relative who saw the Facebook post also alerted authorities. Paramedics followed a trail of blood past a gas can, two knives and a lighter and found the suspect slashing his throat, the complaint said.