Report slams FAA response to fire at air traffic facility

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

CHICAGO (AP) — The Federal Aviation Administration had insufficient contingency plans and security protocols in place at a Chicago air traffic control facility that was set on fire last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general said in a report released Wednesday that recommends the FAA make improvements at all of its facilities.

The fire the Aurora Federal Aviation Administration facility forced Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports to close and disrupted air traffic nationwide as FAA scrambled to restore operations.

The inspector general's report said the FAA's plans "did not contain procedures for transferring air traffic and airspace responsibilities from Chicago Center to other facilities." The report goes on to say that the FAA had to revert to an "outdated 2008 plan."

FAA contractor Brian Howard pleaded guilty in May to setting the fire in an outburst targeting his employer and government workers he thought were "lazy." He was sentenced in September to 12 1/2 years in prison.

Among other changes, the inspector general recommended the FAA redesign its operational contingency plans for all of its center facilities, conduct contingency training that simulate more realistic scenarios and consider replacing existing fire suppression systems in critical center equipment areas with a waterless system.

In a statement late Wednesday, the FAA said that it has "significantly increased the security of its air traffic systems to ensure that they are more resilient and less vulnerable to the type of attack that occurred at the Chicago center."

The inspector general's report contends that at the time of the fire, security wasn't able to deal with an insider threat to the air traffic system. It says the FAA didn't have a way to block a current or former employee from accessing the facility; for example, there was no requirement that an employee's access card be deactivated if he or she was transferred to a new facility.

According to the repot, Howard's last scheduled shift at the Aurora facility was Sept. 18, 2014. According to court filings, Howard walked into the radar facility before dawn on Sept. 26, 2014, carrying a gas can, a lighter and knives; he cut cables and set fire to a telecommunications room before trying to slit his throat. The disruption forced an hourslong shutdown of Chicago's airports and the center didn't reopen for two weeks. Thousands of flights were canceled.

In a statement released late Wednesday, the FAA said that since the fire, it has implemented a number of security enhancements against insider threats.

"These measures include enhanced oversight of security assessments at facilities, an increase in the frequency of assessments, additional access restrictions, and more robust verification of employees and contractors," the agency said.

FAA said it has also increased the monitoring of contractor company compliance with security requirements and instituted mandatory reviews of contractor personnel changes.

The inspector general undertook its investigation at the request of six Democratic members of Illinois' congressional delegation, including Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Tammy Duckworth.

In a statement Wednesday, the lawmakers said the report indicates concerns about the air traffic control system are not unique to Chicago.