The afternoon following a plane-grounding snowstorm in early March, O'Hare International Airport's radar system suddenly went down. It took engineers more than three hours to find out why and fix it.
Scores of planes across the nation were grounded as O'Hare had to significantly cut landings, and numerous flights nationwide were delayed up to six hours.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees national radar systems, blamed the March 6 incident on a local telephone company for mistakenly cutting a key communication line during routine maintenance between a radar station in Elgin and O'Hare's main tower.
But according to the FAA's own incident report obtained by the Daily Herald, the agency actually ordered that line cut months earlier, and it simply forgot to cancel the order when a switch to a new line failed.
The costly mistake is now fueling another bout between FAA employees and administrators, underlining a growing tension as union negotiations tank and O'Hare launches into its biggest makeover in history.
FAA employees blame the March line-cutting mishap on mismanagement. Troy Swanberg, a local union leader, alleges entry- level engineers were put in charge of the complex line-switching that led to the never-canceled order to cut the line.
"They didn't have someone looking at the whole program," said Swanberg, president of the local engineers and architects division of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "I hope the agency can see the error and change to make sure this doesn't happen numerous times over the life of this project."
Swanberg says more mistakes are likely as O'Hare starts a decade-plus long expansion because entry-level engineers will be in charge of more projects like new radar systems and towers. As the project gets under way, the FAA is set to send about 100 engineers in Des Plaines to Texas.
FAA spokesman Elizabeth Cory says the union is blowing the incident out of proportion. She said no engineers critical to the expansion plan will be moved from Des Plaines. A final list of engineers to move this year is not yet drafted, she said.
"They will be jobs that could be done just as easily long distance," Cory said. "(The radar outage) and the move just aren't really connected."
The move is part of a national consolidation of nine FAA offices to three to save millions of dollars over the years.
Cory said the agency didn't mean to misinform the public about the cause of the March radar breakdown. The agency gave out all the information it had at the time, and she said they didn't follow up with the public because no one asked.
Meanwhile, the FAA is reviewing the process by which such disconnect orders are made, and she said no employees have been faulted in the incident.
Whether the line cut is emblematic of bigger problems or just a simple error is debatable, says Joseph Del Balzo, a former FAA head and current aviation consultant.
"Truth is most likely somewhere in between," said Del Balzo, who has recently done studies on O'Hare's expansion for critics of the project. "I would take what both sides say with a grain of salt."
Both sides' views should be placed in the context of ongoing contract negotiations and the fight over moving local employees to Texas, he said.
Just last week, contract negotiations broke down between the FAA and the Air Traffic Controllers Association.
The controllers are not allowed to strike under federal laws. The FAA has sent its last contract proposal as well as the union's to Congress for a vote.
Plus, local traffic controllers have long been citing the FAA for failing to ensure there will be enough radar operators to handle the new O'Hare traffic after expansion. The controllers union includes Swanberg's engineers and architects in the Des Plaines office.
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