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Furlough could delay fall opening of O’Hare’s runway

Updated: May 25, 2013 6:44AM

Long-term furloughs of air traffic controllers could foul up the fall opening of O’Hare International Airport’s new runway — part of the $6.6 billion O’Hare Modernization Program, a union official warned Tuesday.

Controller training on dealing with the new east-west runway is “at a standstill” because of mandated controller furloughs that started nationwide Sunday, said Dan Carrico, president of the air traffic controller local at O’Hare Tower.

Unless controllers are properly trained on the nuances of the new runway, it may open in October as scheduled but “we can’t use that runway,’’ Carrico said.

“It will just be an empty piece of concrete.”

Controllers at towers in Elgin and Aurora must also complete training on the new runway, as both towers play critical roles in guiding planes in and out of O’Hare, Carrico said.

Another consequence of the FAA cutbacks required by the federal “sequestration” and budget stalemate is that training of controllers new to O’Hare is drying up, Carrico said. Even experienced controllers who join the O’Hare team need two years of training at O’Hare before they can be certified to serve as an O’Hare air traffic controller, he said.

“There are controllers in various states of training,” Carrico said. “We have some controllers who are just walking in the door from other airports….This is detrimental because we are not training our replacements.’’

The FAA said Tuesday that it had terminated air traffic controller and technician training at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City for the remainder of the fiscal year. The FAA said it “did not anticipate an immediate impact to its future traffic controller staffing plans.” However it conceded that if training cannot resume this fall, “the reduced pool of controllers could create facility staffing challenges in the next two to three years.’’

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said Tuesday that after the first two days of controller furloughs, more than 10,000 flights had been delayed and more than 600 cancelled. “This is just the beginning,’’ warned association spokesman Doug Church in a news release.

The FAA reported most delays at O’Hare and Midway airports Tuesday were weather related, although both airports saw “staffing’’ — or controller-related — delays of nearly 75 minutes on flights destined for Washington D.C.’s Reagan National Airport.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, denied allegations by Republicans that he was making a political statement by imposing furloughs in an area with visible impacts on taxpayers.

“This has nothing to do with politics,’’ LaHood said. “This is very bad policy that Congress passed and they should fix it.”

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called Tuesday for a 30-day delay in imposing furloughs. He is one of two senators who have proposed transferring $50 million in unused FAA research and capital funds to prevent another FAA cutback — the closure of 149 air traffic control towers nationwide.

Contributing: Associated Press

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