WASHINGTON – Following a fire last Friday that closed the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZAU) in Aurora, Ill., hundreds of air traffic controllers at more than a dozen key facilities are continuing to safely move as much air traffic flow into, out of and around the Chicago area as possible.
This work will continue into the coming week as the Federal Aviation Administration develops a plan to repair critical communications infrastructure that was destroyed in the fire.
“This is one of the most challenging situations that air traffic controllers and other FAA employees have faced since 9/11,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said. “The damage to this critical facility is unlike anything we have seen before. Since the first moment when radar scopes went dark at Chicago Center Friday morning, controllers have ensured the highest level of safety at all times. We know this has been a tremendous disruption to the travel plans of many people. We are working diligently to re-establish as close to normal operations as possible to minimize the inconvenience to travelers while keeping safety above everything else.”
There are four en route centers that border the ZAU airspace; Cleveland Center (ZOB), Indianapolis Center (ZID), Kansas City Center (ZKC), and Minneapolis Center (ZMP). Each of these facilities has helped assume the ZAU airspace responsibilities, and worked very well with Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities in Chicago, Milwaukee, Fort Wayne, South Bend, and elsewhere (see full list in final paragraph), as well as with many control towers, including both O’Hare and Midway Airports in Chicago.
“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,” NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert said. “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.”
As of Sunday afternoon, arrival traffic into O’Hare and Midway is being fed to Chicago TRACON (C90) directly from ZMP and ZKC. Arrivals into Chicago airports from ZOB and ZID are being descended down first into South Bend TRACON, then into C90. Departure traffic from O’Hare and Midway continue to be worked directly from C90 to ZKC, ZID, and ZOB, while traffic to the north continues to depart the tower en route through Milwaukee TRACON.
Notice the giant hole in ZAU airspace. pic.twitter.com/farqulIHE6
— Ian Petchenik (@petchmo) September 26, 2014
ORD: The arrival rate has been increased to 72 per hour. Departure restrictions are still in place in all directions. Manual handoffs with other control facilities are still in place in the absence of a fully functioning automated flight plan system. We are seeing departure delays of up to 15 minutes. That could increase to 30 by later today.
C90: An already short-staffed facility is utilizing ZAU controllers to help with increased coordination to different centers. That is ensuring that the operation is as efficient as possible. “We continue to work hard, and I am so proud of the controllers’ professionalism and work ethic,” NATCA Facility Representative James Hall said. “We are C90 – we will always figure out a way to move the airplanes. I anticipate increasing our efficiencies with continued out-of-the-box thinking. That is, of course, with continued ZAU controller support, and staffing to hold.”
ZAU: This is the first time since 1963 that ZAU air traffic controllers have not worked the airspace. “The controllers at Chicago Center are currently providing as much assistance to other facilities as possible,” NATCA Facility Representative Toby Hauck said. “I have attempted to put into words what we have been through and it is impossible to describe. I thank all those facilities and controllers who have stepped up.”
ZID: “So far, the arrival process seems to be going well,” NATCA Facility Representative Jim Larson said. “We have had to make manual handoffs to the approach controls on all of the arrivals, but our controllers have done a good job of dealing with the increased traffic and complexity.” ZID’s radar and radio coverage has been exceptional, and is allowing them to radar identify the aircraft while they are still within Chicago TRACON airspace, but until the problem with the automated flight plan data is solved, it remains a tedious operation. Extra staffing has been called in to assist with the new procedures and airspace in both areas. This will most likely continue for the duration of the ZAU outage.
ZKC: ZKC has set up a new sector that is working a chunk of Chicago Center’s (ZAU) airspace to allow for O’Hare (ORD) and Midway (MDW) arrivals and departures to be worked. They have a plan in place in which they own 16,000 feet and above from Joliet (JOT), which is just in Chicago TRACON’s (C90) airspace, west to Des Moines (DSM) and south to Centralia, Ill. (ENL). They have radar and frequency coverage, so ZKC is working directly with C90 to accomplish handoffs and transfer of flight plans.
Additional personnel is helping the areas adjacent to ZAU¹s boundary with the extra position being opened and transferring of flight plan information. “We also have a dedicated phone brought in that is dialed into C90, acting as a direct line for the ease of passing flight plans to and from C90,” NATCA Facility Representative Aaron Merrick said. “Once we got our plan implemented Friday, things began to move smoother than they were after the initial phase of the situation.”
ZMP: They are doing a very similar operation as ZKC. 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,” NATCA Facility Representative Mike Thompson said. “There are many great people doing many great things with very little to work with.”
ZOB: As of noon on Sunday, ZOB was receiving about 85 percent of ORD departure flight plan information. However, everything is still manual coordination whether they have the flight plan info or not.
ZOB’s airspace plan is also very similar to ZKC. The facility has basically extended their western boundary 60 miles further to the West, almost to C90’s eastern boundary. With the extra airspace they’ve attained from ZAU, they were able to create two new departure sectors. These sectors handle all east, northeast and southeastern departures.
“The affected areas of the facility handling the additional sectors are all requiring extra staffing to handle the extra workload and complexity,” NATCA Facility Representative Drew MacQueen said. “We expect this to continue as work to increase traffic levels out of ZAU continues to mount.”
TRACONS IN ZAU AIRSPACE: Controllers working radar positions at the TRACONS in Cedar Rapids, Champaign, Des Moines, Fort Wayne, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Milwaukee, Moline, Muskegon, Peoria, Rockford, South Bend, Springfield, Waterloo, and also Grissom Air Reserve Base in Kokomo, Ind., have played a crucial role in the effort to get traffic moving as a temporary solution while ZAU is down. In the case of traffic flowing into and out of Chicago airports, they are providing a conduit between the adjacent centers and Chicago TRACON. “These employees are working a staggering amount of traffic, using new procedures and methods being altered almost constantly, and ensuring safety in very difficult and pressure-filled situations,” Gilbert said. “It’s a great team effort in progress.”