AURORA, Ill. — The head of the Federal Aviation Administration and lawmakers toured a sabotaged Chicago-area air traffic facility on Friday, saying they were shocked by the extent of damage and calling for a more sophisticated backup system in the event of future trouble.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and members of Illinois' congressional delegation spoke to reporters after observing the damage and the recovery efforts at the facility in Aurora. Authorities say a contract employee armed with knives cut through cables and used gasoline to set fire to a basement telecommunications room on Sept. 26, destroying equipment that forced the shutdown of Chicago's two airports and led to the cancellation of thousands of flights.
"It was an incredible act of sabotage," U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said after the tour, which was closed to journalists. He said in one area of the telecommunications roof there was nothing left but "a charred mass of black cables."
The FAA has said it hopes to have the center's communications system operational by Oct. 13. More than 10 miles of cables need to be replaced. In the meantime, other air traffic facilities have taken over the center's responsibilities.
Responding to calls from lawmakers, the agency is carrying out a 30-day review of security procedures and "ways to more quickly restore service" in the event of future outages, Huerta said.
As an intermediate step, the security presence at critical facilities has been increased and patrols have been stepped up, he said.
Durbin, along with U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, said the FAA needs a better backup system to ensure planes can keep flying safely in the event of future trouble and more money from Congress to make sure it gets done.
"In the case of the private sector, you need continuous operations no matter what," Kirk said. "The government can sometimes go through a full cardiac arrest, like we had here."
The FAA is in the midst of transitioning from a 1950s-era radar-based system to one based on GPS. Known as NextGen, the FAA's more modern satellite-based program should enable more seamless operations. But it is years from being fully rolled out.
As part of that program, a communications system will be in place in about two years that will allow seamless routing of communications between air traffic facilities, Huerta said.
Kirk called for quicker action, stressing the high stakes.
"O'Hare is the beating heart of the U.S. economy. It can never stop," Kirk said.
A week after the fire, flight operations at O'Hare and Midway airports have still not fully recovered.
The damage to the economy has been significant. The U.S. Travel Association put a partial estimate at nearly $123 million in lost economic activity associated with just the 3,900 flights canceled in the four days immediately after the fire.