FAA finds O'Hare slip-ups; Construction equipment spurred runway and power problems, federal report says

Construction equipment blocked runway safety areas at O'Hare International Airport and severed power cables last year, creating potential collision hazards and knocking out navigation aids for pilots, federal inspectors have found.

In one incident, work crews cut or crushed a utility line powering a vital safety system that warns pilots about dangerous wind-shear conditions close to the ground, according to Federal Aviation Administration documents obtained by the Tribune under the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents indicate that FAA inspectors found numerous violations by the Chicago Department of Aviation, the O'Hare Modernization Program and O'Hare expansion contractors. The alleged infractions occurred between June and October 2006.

"What occurred is unacceptable and it is not going to be tolerated," said Rosemarie Andolino, executive director of the $15 billion O'Hare expansion project.

After an FAA construction inspection on June 23, the FAA issued a stern warning letter to Chicago Aviation Commissioner Nuria Fernandez.

The letter, listing 17 violations, said the city Aviation Department "does not have sufficient and qualified personnel" to comply with FAA requirements, and the city "is not equipping personnel with sufficient resources" to satisfy the regulations.

On Aug. 7, concerns reached the top of the FAA hierarchy in Washington, D.C., when agency Administrator Marion Blakey asked about a report that construction debris on O'Hare Runway 4 Right was causing flight delays.

There was no immediate threat to passenger safety in any of the incidents, said the FAA, which did not fine the city or its contractors.

But the mistakes prompted stepped-up inspections and daily communication between the city and federal authorities to ensure problems don't return as work intensifies on the massive project.

"The feeling is that the city is definitely working to correct the situation," said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory. "But we are watching very closely to maintain safety on the airfield."

The violations ranged from failing to ensure that mud and dirt from construction work were promptly removed from areas where airplanes taxi, to incidents in which construction equipment and material were stored in safety zones off the ends of runways, according to documents.

Safety zones must remain clear of obstructions in case a plane either cannot stop within the distance available on a runway or it undershoots the front end of the runway.

Also, ground radar that helps controllers guard against aircraft collisions on runways and taxiways and lighting systems that guide pilots to touch down on the center of runways were compromised when cables were destroyed by construction equipment, the FAA said.

For example, O'Hare contractors accidentally cut power cables, resulting in equipment failures for navigation, weather, communications and safety-related systems twice on June 19 and once on June 23, July 10, Oct. 4, Oct. 13 and Oct. 27, FAA records said.

Fernandez said the violations occurred during the first year of major construction on the runway expansion project.

"This is the largest airport construction project in the world, also happening at the world's second-busiest airport. Things are prone to happen, but I was very confident we could deal with them, and we did," Fernandez said.

In the incident that disrupted the primary power to the wind-shear warning system on Oct. 27, the FAA sent two technicians to the location, between Runways 9 Left and 9 Right, which were in use for landings, the documents said.

Wind-shear involves rapidly changing wind currents and can cause crashes.

The technicians waited for city aviation security guards to open a construction gate, the FAA said. When the technicians finally got to the site, they found that lights intended to warn pilots of a 150-foot obstruction were not working.

No accidents resulted because of the missing lights and the wind-shear warning system was running on backup batteries, officials determined.

Meanwhile, city officials were sometimes slow to address problems and participate in safety meetings called by the FAA, the documents show.

For example, a July 19 memo from Tricia Halpin, an FAA airports certification safety inspector, to a top city aviation official lamented that no one from O'Hare's operations staff attended a meeting to discuss safety during different phases of construction.

"Several issues that have operational impact [were] discussed, however, Operations was not present," Halpin wrote to O'Hare Chief Operating Officer David Ochal.

"We believe it is critical that Operations attends these meetings."

The reprimand from Halpin followed an earlier no-show at a June meeting by Aviation Department operations staff.

"I am sure you understand that a project of this magnitude requires commitment, cooperation and communication between all parties," Halpin wrote to city officials.



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