Inside The FAA

When Brian Howard sabotaged the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center on September 26, many were surprised that the actions of just one could affect so thousands, flights were delayed nationwide for days. But why? The answer may surprise you in its level of complexity.

Local resident, David Sapadin, a retired FAA traffic controller who worked at the center, explains how airplanes are guided from sector to sector and the amount of data and communication that’s needed.

“If you can imagine an inverted wedding cake, if you’re at 17,000 feet or below and you’re about 30 to 40 miles radius of O’Hare, then the responsibility of your flight is being handled out at Elgin,” said Sapadin. “As soon as the aircraft wants to get out of 17,000 feet, all the way up to the 40,000 feet and above, you’re going to be switched to Chicago center. If you’re going East, you’ll be switched to a sector that handles East departures. If you’re going South, you’ll be switched to a sector that handles South departures, and so on. So, the flows are physically split into low altitude sectors.”

The Chicago sector handles 10 to 12 thousand flights a day.
The fire at the center put into motion a contingency plan Sapadin helped create when he worked at the FAA.

“The contingency plan called for all of those terminal radar approach facilities to vertically expand their airspace from whatever it was they normally were, 10,000 feet and below, to up to 23,000 feet,” said Sapadin. “The aircraft would go from one to the other to the other until it got to C-90 and could talk to O’Hare and then talk to the tower and get down. But, this would obviously slow things down, the people at the facilities would be working airspace their not used to, at high altitude they normally don’t, and at speeds their definitely not used to.”
Though the contingency plan was in place, it was unpracticed- yet Sapadin feels the plan worked well, getting flights back into the air.

“Once these people were deployed, then the numbers really went up,” said Sapadin. “So some of this they came up with on the fly. That’s amazing; they didn’t have any warning that this was coming. It’s tough, I hope I’ve communicated somehow the complexity of what’s involved and the amount of data.”

Though flights were operational, delays remained, even affecting the President days later when he had to reroute Air Force One to the Gary airport, instead of O’hare as previously planned.

Despite the troubles many flyers experienced, Sapadin is relieved the disruption occurred during a less-active flight time.

“It might be a wake up call, a terrible thing but fortunate that this happened on midnight shift, before all the controllers had reported to duty for the day shift, before the rushes had taken off from Midway and O’Hare, there were fewer aircraft in the sky. This may in some form be a blessing for FAA and the government and congress to go through how they want to approach these issues down the road.

The FAA hopes to restore full service at the Aurora facility by October 13.

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