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O’Hare Radar Outage Means Big Delay Problems, Continued Headaches for Travelers Due to FAA's Failure to Provide Backup - (12/15/2006)

CONTACT:     Ray Gibbons (Chicago), 630.546.9958

CHICAGO – This morning’s failure of the lone Airport Surveillance Radar-Model 9 (ASR-9) at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has drastically slashed the airport’s arrival rate and greatly diminished the efficiency of some of the world’s busiest airspace. It also serves as an expensive and painful reminder of the consequences associated with the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure to provide a critical redundancy for the system in the form of a backup radar. 

The outage began at approximately 3:30 a.m. CST and continues at this hour (8:45 a.m. CDT). Normally, the morning arrival rate for O’Hare’s three runways is 96 aircraft per hour. But the radar outage has meant that controllers sequencing approaches from the Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility in Elgin, Ill., have had to put more space between planes for safety, cutting the arrival rate to 60 aircraft per hour. 

“I have been begging for 15 years for a backup radar at O’Hare,” said Ray Gibbons, Chicago TRACON facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “The fact that one of the busiest airports in the world has a single radar source is an abomination. Both Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth have multiple radar, ASR-9, antennas, to cover for catastrophic failures.” 

While radar outages such as today’s are rare, they also have no effect on the system if a backup system is in place. However, in Chicago, a backup, non-digital radar system was discontinued 12 years ago when the TRACON was moved from O’Hare to Elgin, too far away for the O’Hare-based system to send its signal to TRACON controllers’ radar scopes. The FAA then decided to rely on a single ASR-9 system. 

“The simple fact is that the equipment is reliable but we have also been lucky,” Gibbons said. “Until it fails, you don’t see the impact and the lack of planning.” 

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