FAA Maps 'Escape Routes' out of O'Hare in Storms

Mar. 27 -- Special bad-weather "escape routes" to guide pilots around thunderstorms in the Chicago area and a computer program that gives airlines earlier warnings about spiraling flight delays are among some new air-traffic tools announced today to improve spring and summer travel.

The new initiatives represent the Federal Aviation Administration's latest attempt to address aviation gridlock especially during poor weather at O'Hare International Airport, which last year recorded the most delayed flights among U.S. airports, and at Midway Airport.

It's unclear how much the new bag of air-traffic tricks will improve the odds for passengers trying to make flights on stormy days when planes are stacked up and safe, stable airspace is in short supply. The FAA offered no predictions today.

"It is too difficult to tell you right now. We will measure it," said Bob Everson, FAA director of tactical air-traffic operations in the Midwest, during a news conference near O'Hare.

Everson said the high winds and heavy rain associated with thunderstorms are tougher for air-traffic controllers to deal with than snowy weather because they are extremely unpredictable.

"There is no silver bullet during a thunderstorm. Each thunderstorm we deal with in the Chicago area is unique," Everson said. "These are additional tools that we can utilize and hopefully they will be effective and minimize impact."

New air-traffic escape routes designed for O'Hare will permit planes to use alternate routings after takeoff during severe weather in the Chicago region. The focus will be on preventing backups of planes waiting to depart O'Hare by concentrating on getting the first six to 10 planes that are stuck in departure "holds" onto the escape routes quickly, said Bob Flynn, FAA traffic management manager for Chicago-area airports.

The FAA hopes to launch in May a new computer software program at O'Hare that predicts early in the day when the volume of planes being handled on a bad-weather day will grow into major delays on the ground as well as in the air. Data from the predictive software will be passed along to the airlines to help the carriers make decisions about canceling, rescheduling or consolidating banks of flights to minimize disruptions to passengers, said Michael O'Brien, air traffic manager at Chicago Center, an FAA facility that handles high-altitude traffic over parts of the Midwest.

An existing procedure that will be expanded during bad weather gives airlines the option of flying at a lower altitude during a portion of some flights in a strategy to "tunnel" under stormy weather.

The FAA offered such departures--in which an aircraft might fly up to 450 miles at a reduced altitude of about 23,000 feet until they are clear of Chicago airspace--in the past as a way to address congestion problems by making greater use of lightly traveled airspace. But the airlines did not embrace the procedure because planes burn fuel more quickly in the dense air at low altitude.

Officials hope that given the choice between flying low or not flying at all during thunderstorms, the airlines will reconsider.

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