A recent emergency at O’Hare International Airport — the second-largest in the United States — offers a perfect example of the disruption and delays in service that can occur out of nowhere.
On Sept. 26, a disgruntled telecommunications contractor sabotaged an air traffic control center in Aurora by setting equipment on fire and cutting wires, before attempting to take his own life.
Though he was taken into custody before that could happen, the damage was immediate and severe: around 3,700 flights had to be canceled, flights into Chicago had to be rerouted, and traffic responsibilities were divided up among the four neighboring air traffic control centers, as the FAA put its contingency plans into action.
With O’Hare’s communications array out of commission, that included figuring out how to send data out to the backup centers. The FAA went with a low-tech solution: manually typing in flight-plan information for each of the planes remaining in the sky and printing them out on strips of paper!
“This is the biggest challenge we have faced in the national airspace system since the tragedy of 9/11,” Paul Rinaldi, president of the air traffic controllers union, told NBC News.
While traffic is slowly returning to normal, the Aurora center will only be reopening on Oct. 13, as crews work on reconfiguring spaces to house new equipment, while the FAA takes the month to review its contingency plans.