WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced on Monday a nation-wide security review, three days after a fire at a key Chicago air traffic facility led to ongoing travel chaos.
More than 550 flights out of O'Hare International Airport – one of the world's busiest – were cancelled as of mid-afternoon Monday, Chicago's Department of Aviation reported.
Other inbound and outbound flights were running 20 to 60 minutes late, it said.
The situation was better at the city's smaller, domestic Midway airport where more than 55 flights were cancelled and some airlines reported occasional delays of more than 45 minutes.
The fire at the Chicago En Route Centre in suburban Aurora – blamed on a contract worker trying to take his own life – prompted the cancellation of more than 1,500 flights at O'Hare on Friday alone.
Brian Howard, 36, appeared in court Monday charged with destruction of an aviation facility, a felony that could bring a 20-year prison sentence.
"I'm sorry," he said on his way into the court house, as family members shouted back, "Don't apologise. We love you'," Chicago television station WLS reported.
"On Friday, Brian tried to take his life. That he did so in a way that inconvenienced so many, he deeply regrets that," his lawyer Ron Safer said.
Delays and cancelations dragged on throughout the weekend as technicians scrambled to get the facility up and running again – a task due to be completed around October 13.
"The damaged communications equipment needs to be replaced entirely," FAA chief Michael Huerta told the annual conference of the Air Traffic Control Association outside Washington.
Seeks 'robust' practices
Huerta announced a 30-day review of security protocols at FAA air traffic facilities across the United States "to make sure we have the most robust policies and practices in place."
"If we need to make changes as a result of what happened on Friday to improve the system, we will not hesitate to do so," said Huerta, according to a prepared text.
The security review will run in tandem with a rethink of the FAA's contingency plans for keeping air traffic moving as safely and smoothly as possible in the event of another major disruption.
Officials allege that Friday's fire in the basement telecommunications room was ignited by Howard, a contract worker who was reportedly upset at an impending transfer to Hawaii.
According to a federal complaint, Howard had posted a message on his Facebook page saying he was going to "take out" the control centre and kill himself.
Paramedics reportedly discovered him at the scene in the process of cutting his throat. Two knives and a lighter were also found, according to the federal complaint.
Howard was released from hospital on Monday and placed in federal custody. In court, he appeared in hospital scrubs with a large bandage over the front of his neck, WLS-TV reported.
The Chicago En Route Centre is responsible for directing air traffic overflying five Midwestern states. It also guides flights into and out of Chicago's busy airspace.
When the fire struck, those tasks were reassigned to other air traffic control facilities, some as far off as Kansas and Ohio, with Aurora-based controllers sent to those locations to help with their extra workload.— AFP