September 29, 2014 / 1:50 PM / 5 years ago

U.S. FAA says reviewing contingency plans, security polices after fire

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. aviation safety agency’s top official said on Monday he ordered a review of all U.S. air traffic control contingency plans and security policies following a fire on Friday that crippled air travel over much of the U.S. Midwest.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta discusses the agency's response and recommendations from the Portable Electronic Devices Aviation Rulemaking Committee at Reagan National Airport in Washington October 31, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Speaking at an industry conference, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency will not hesitate to make changes in security policies if needed.

The outage affected more than 3,000 flights. It was caused by a contract employee who allegedly started a fire at a control facility near Chicago and suffered self-inflicted wounds.

Huerta, in his first public comments since the incident, said 20 of 29 pieces of communications equipment were damaged by the fire. Installation of new equipment began Sunday night, carried out largely by contractor Harris Corp.

Huerta said the FAA has tightened security at certain facilities and added guards at the Chicago center. The agency is undertaking a 30-day review of contingency plans at air traffic control facilities and a review of security procedures, he said.

“It’s very, very important that we do a thorough review of the security protocols for the access to all of our facilities and make sure that we have the best processes in place,” Huerta said at a conference organized by the Air Traffic Control Association.

Speaking more broadly about an ongoing overhaul of the air traffic control system, known as NextGen, Huerta said the FAA was committed to meeting a 2020 deadline for air carriers to equip jetliners with the capability to work with the new system.

“We will try to identify what the issues are, or what the barriers are, so that the carriers can equip by the deadline that we worked with industry to establish, a deadline that is rapidly approaching, January 2020,” Huerta said.

“That date is not going to change,” he added. “NextGen is on track. And we will keep it on track, but to do so, we’ve got to meet that equipage mandate.”

NextGen will use global satellite navigation and other changes to fit more aircraft into the airspace and improve the efficiency of air travel.

Cancellations and delays continued on Monday at Chicago airports, with 300 canceled flights at O’Hare International Airport, according to Chicago’s Department of Aviation. About 2,100 flights were canceled on Friday after the fire, and about 1,100 on Saturday.

By late Monday, the agency had restored about 83 percent of normal flight traffic at O’Hare and about 94 percent at Midway International Airport, Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, said at the conference.

The FAA expects to have the communication system fully restored by October 13.

“If we can do it earlier, we’ll do it earlier,” Bristol said.

Reporting by Alwyn Scott; additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski in Chicago; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Dan Grebler

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