Thoughts on the Chicago Air Traffic Control Disaster

I was fortunate not to be flying through or to Chicago over the past several days. And I’m certainly not an expert on the situation. So I’m not going to try to speculate on the man who did it, who is presumed to have been trying to commit suicide and in the process brought down a chunk of the nation’s air traffic control system. And I’m not an expert in the technology or processes involved.

The way this all unfolded was surprising, and I do have some non-expert thoughts.

  • Whatever situation that led to the presumed suicide attempt which touched this off is, no doubt, tragic.

  • And yet I am grateful that the person attempting suicide wasn’t a Muslim. I can only imagine how that one detail would have changed the national response to things, and not for the better.

  • It’s striking that one act could take out so much of air traffic control, call me naïve but I would have expected better redundancy.

  • The only redundancy seems to be the employees in adjacent centers that border the ZAU airspace; Cleveland Center, Indianapolis Center, Kansas City Center, and Minneapolis Center. And the folks in nearby Terminal Radar Approach (TRACON) centers. Apparently hand-offs that were automated are now manual using handwritten flight plans.

  • I do have to give the system credit for handling what it has safely.
    There’s a lot wrong with ATC, but safety isn’t really one of those things.

Lots of employees working incredibly hard during a tremendously challenging situation — but one that I’m surprised is as challenging as it has been. With hundreds of flights still being cancelled days later, this episode reveals a huge hole in the way that our nation’s air traffic system functions.

The question is whether anyone will do anything about it. And since this wasn’t terrorism, I’d take a wild guess the answer is no at least in the near-term.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary,

    The problem with ATC redundancies is how much tax payer money do you want to spend for something you hardly use? And then how do you define redundancy? Do you want the ability to replicate an entire facility? Does every facility have to a have a physical backup? How do you train those people? How do you keep them current?

    The system isn’t at a point yet where any controller any where can work a sector any where in the country.

    How much money do we want to spend to get to that point, given how often it would be needed?

  2. It doesn’t matter whether he was a muslim or not, what matters is that:

    1) He was a terrorist and committed a terrorist act
    2) It’s not workplace violence
    3) Social Media, like Facebook et al., enable and profit from his terrorist speech and give him a free-of-charge sub-directory on the Facebook URL, when in fact Facebook is liable before any content is allowed on Facebook’s public display.

    Now if he were a “gentle giant” from Ferguson (who was a terrorist and incited more terrorism), no doubt Obama the fool would have mentioned it at the UN as an apologetic.


  3. @Dan we’ve dumped endless cash into NextGen. But these folks are working off of paper flight plans. I do not consider myself an expert but it seems a bit off considering the investment and what NavCanada has done.

  4. From the news reports, the situation that led to his suicide attempt was hearing he was being transferred to Hawaii. I wouldn’t characterize that as “tragic.”

  5. @IMH – disaster only means a catastrophic failure, which this certainly is. Disaster Recovery planning should be central in the FAA, how to recover from predictable possible points of failure. Also recovery options in an Act of God situation. These are not new talking points in business planning and should have been thoroughly addressed and planned for in something as critical as FAA traffic control.

    I work in the data world, if I lost a system and had not disaster recovery plan I would be fired. If I had a plan but it was inadequate I would be fired. If I had a plan but couldn’t execute and recover in a timely manner as prescribed I would be fired. These are not new ideas and the thought that one seemingly small act can disable such a critical infrastructure is unacceptable. Heads should roll over this, incredible mismanagement has taken place, it would seem.

    Makes me think of Tommy Boy and using file cabinets…underserving a critical piece of the economy. And I’m no authority so I may be WAAAY off base. At least where a quick disaster recovery plan is concerned I’m spot on.

  6. @Sice – OK, now we can debate what “catastrophic” means. There is no a priori way to determine when to start using the term disaster because it’s dependent on whether we consider it catastrophic. In turn, we would need to decide whether this was catastrophic – involving sudden, great damage or suffering. Now we need to decide whether or not the damage or suffering was “great.” Et cetera.

    It’s the Münchhausen trilemma in a nutshell. (And thank you for giving me an opportunity to mention Baron Münchhausen.)

    So we need to just decide whether to call the thing a disaster. I would say that Tenerife was a disaster. This was not. Then again, the Boston Massacre only killed five people – as such, I’d argue that it’s a misnomer.

  7. Gary,

    What has NavCanada done? I ask that in all seriousness, because I have no friggin’ clue. Right before I’m about to say I make my living off of NextGen government spending. So I probably should know what our neighbors up north are actually doing.

    The answer to these kinds of questions is always politics. One of the biggest problems with the US aviation system is that the service provider and the regulator are both the same organization. Worldwide, few countries do it that way.

    What that also means is that just about anything can get hampered by politics. I’m not going to do any party bashing here, so I’ll leave the names out (the outcome is true no matter who is in office.) When’s the last time you saw congress agree on getting anything done? They won’t. Because if the minority party lets something good happen, the majority party is going to take credit for it, and OMG, they just can’t let that happen. The flip side is, when nothing happens, the minority party can point at the majority and say “see, they suck so bad we should be in office. We’ll fix them!”

    You can argue the politics with me all you want, but 1) I don’t work on the Hill and can’t change them and 2) You still have to admit that politics is what stops stuff from getting done, because hey, as you noticed, there’s money to fix the stuff if people decided they wanted it fixed.

    Says the guy who actually doesn’t give two sh!ts who is in office, what he cares about is government actually working *for* the people, not against them.

    P.S. When we’ve been using 1960’s technology for 50 years, we really can’t blame any one party for the state of the system.

  8. BTW, I got stuck at ORD in May during the last “fire” in the control room over there. After not really sleeping on a 15 hour flight back from HKG, the last thing I wanted was an extended layover at the AAmirals club. That place was not worth an extra six hours.

  9. Dan, I agree completely that there isn’t a single party responsible for the cluster!$#!@$!@ that is the FAA’s technology and their feeble attempts to upgrade it. Again, I am not an expert on the particulars I continue to flag that I merely have impressions and what I’ve read from the outside. Canada has managed to upgrade its technology, lower costs, even while needing to provide service to far flung places that are deeply subsidized. It’s a government effort gone relatively right in this space.

  10. Sice is 100% correct. Private sector management would be terminated immediately if this was the extent of the disaster recovery plan. It is readily foreseeable that a tower could be taken out by any # of natural or human induced events. To not have a backup plan is inexcusable for such a critical industry.

    Glad I am not traveling this week but still makes me angry that thousands are inconvenienced by one ***** and many incompetent bureaucrats.

  11. @Chris – Catastrophic is a very relative term. The effect of this mess on ATC not only in the Chicago area but much farther reaching could be termed catastrophic. True, in relation to other events of greater human magnitude this is a small thing. But in the world of ATC it’s huge. Just like if I lose a server and my company goes down no one is hurt, nothing destroyed, people merely inconvenienced until I get that server back up. But it’s still a disaster to my company.

  12. Paper flight slips? You’re kidding, right? Or through a time warp, have we travelled back in time to 1956? LOL

  13. Gary – you said “…Canada has managed to upgrade its technology, lower costs, even while needing to provide service to far flung places that are deeply subsidized. It’s a government effort gone relatively right in this space.”

    Flying out of Canada is so much more expensive than flying out of the US. Sunwing (a Canadian charter that flies to Cancun and other similar places) has just started flying out of Buffalo, NY because Canadians (from Toronto) are fed up with paying such high taxes for flying out of YYZ and are willing to make the drive across the border.

    Long-haul flights for a family of 4 from Canada vs from the US can be anywhere from $500 to $3000 more expensive- yes $3000.

    Many use their Avios for short-haul to a US destination and then use miles or cash to fly. The US taxes are also cheaper so the Miles-to-Cash ratio is much better.

    And flying within Canada (short or across the country) is as expensive and sometimes more expensive than flying internationally.

  14. @ Gary – Canada has NOT managed to lower costs (which is what was mentioned in the article). Airport Improvement Fees have gone up (and will go up again in 2015) and such like all go towards “Improving the Airport”…which also included air traffic control.

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