Monday, September 29, 2014

Chicago Traffic Control Center Fire: Australia Has a Good Idea

First, the good news. Nobody died. The suicidal employee who destroyed a key air traffic control center near Chicago, Illinois, has charged with one count of "destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities."

Now, the not-so-good news. Almost 2,000 flights were cancelled. Chicago's O'Hare and Midway International Airports are among the busiest in the world. I've read that flight schedules are still getting unsnarled.

Brian Howard probably had a reason for destroying part of Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZAU)'s data transmission system, and then trying to kill himself. My guess is that at this point, he's the only person who knows why he acted as he did.

Maybe he was despondent over his coming transfer to Hawaii. From Chicago. With winter coming on. Or maybe not.

Air Traffic Control in the 21st Century

(Air traffic control: 1962 and 2006.)

More good news: the FAA's control center used fiber optics and data cable to carry radar signals, digitized radio transmissions, and other critical information. While figuring out how to rebuild the Chicago center, the FAA won't have to learn how to use Information Age tech.

I'm also relieved to learn that the FAA was able to switch control of ZAU's territory to another control center in the area. It would have been nice if it had taken less time: but 'next day' transfer is better than 'next week.'

Predictably, politicos have started declaring that they'll 'investigate' what happened. My hope is that folks with a clue can keep them from doing too much damage.

I also hope that the FAA decides to take a long, hard, look at setting up functional redundancies. This wouldn't have to be a complete duplicate of ZAU, sitting idle unless there was an emergency. I understand that Australia has 'duplicate' air traffic control centers: at opposite ends of the country.

The United States should be able to follow that example: maybe five 'big' centers: in Alaska, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the Washington DC-New York City megalopolis.

I'm pretty sure that setting up cross-training, so that controllers in one center would have some familiarity with the other four; and protocols for transferring data; would take time and effort to set up. But I think the results would be worthwhile.

Related posts:

1 Excerpt from the news:
" Air-Traffic Vulnerabily Examined in Fire Halting Flights"
Alan Levin, Bloomberg (September 28, 2014)

"The havoc created by a suicidal technician at a Chicago-area flight-control center has some lawmakers asking how a single person armed with gasoline and knives could bring down part of the U.S. air-traffic system.

"Damage caused last week by a man police said was trying to disable the facility and kill himself was so severe that the Federal Aviation Administration has decided to rebuild the center’s central nerve system from scratch, the agency said in an e-mail.

" 'The fact that one person can do this indicates there is a problem in our system and we need to take a careful look at this,' Representative Dan Lipinski, a Democrat from Chicago who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an interview with a Chicago TV station....

"...Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said 'This is one of the most challenging situations that air traffic controllers and other FAA employees have faced since 9/11.'

" 'The damage to this critical facility is unlike anything we have seen before,' Rinaldi said in an e-mail.

"The arsonist targeted an area containing the data transmission system that drives modern air traffic, according to an affidavit filed in court by a FBI agent.

"Fiber optics and data cable carry everything from radar signals showing aircraft locations to the digitized radio transmissions that allow controllers to talk to pilots. Without it, FAA centers can't function.

"While that data system in some ways makes air-traffic centers more vulnerable to an attack, it also lets the FAA more easily transfer responsibility for controlling flights to other facilities, said Hansman, who has studied the FAA's system....

"...A day after the fire, controllers at a similar center controlling high-altitude traffic near Indianapolis began handling flights in some Chicago Center’s airways, Doug Church, a spokesman for the air-traffic controllers union, said in an e-mail. Controllers at centers near Cleveland, Minneapolis and Kansas City were doing the same thing, Church said.

"The FAA was sending Chicago center controllers to other area facilities to work traffic because of their knowledge of local flight routes, the FAA said in a Sept. 27 e-mail.

" 'The FAA is using all the tools at its disposal to safely restore as much service as quickly as possible,' the agency said.

"Newer telecommunication technology means that controllers no longer have to be located next to the radio antenna and radar to handle traffic, Hansman said.

"In Australia, the government has built two air-traffic centers on opposite ends of the country that can each handle the other's traffic in an emergency, he said. While the U.S. facilities can't switch as seamlessly, they are more flexible than just a few years ago, he said...."

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.