WASHINGTON — In a move designed to end the growing number of mistakes by air-traffic controllers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday cut the number of hourly flights into the airport.
The reduction came in the wake of four errors since Friday in which four pairs of airplanes were either misdirected by controllers or their pilots misunderstood instructions.
Controllers, who previously handled up to 95 arrivals an hour, now will handle no more than 80, FAA officials said. The most critical hours are the evening rush, which begins at 4:45 p.m. and lasts until just after 8 p.m., the agency said.
The FAA acknowledged that the traffic slowdown into O'Hare will result in further flight delays. A test of the new program Monday delayed 100 flights bound for O'Hare, which is northwest of Chicago, and 30 flights landing at Midway airport, on the southwest side nearer downtown.
FAA officials said they could recall no other occasion in which air traffic was reduced to relieve the controllers' workload. They downplayed any controller stress and staffing problems at Chicago and instead described the changes as the result of "an abundance of caution" by the government.
Radar Room Called 'Zoo'
A Chicago controller, however, described the scene in O'Hare's radar room last Friday, when two of the errors occurred, as "a zoo."
O'Hare, which handled 3,842 takeoffs and landings last Thursday--just 11 fewer than the record set the day before--has long been plagued by controller errors. It has been the subject of three separate safety investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board in the last two years. The most recent, last August, concluded that O'Hare is chronically understaffed, on-the-job training is regularly behind schedule, and controllers work mandatory overtime with outdated equipment.
The weekend incidents marked the 30th time controllers at the country's busiest airport have misdirected planes in the last 12 months. By contrast, the number of errors made by controllers over the same period at other busy airports is substantially lower. Controllers at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, the country's second-busiest airport, have made six errors.
An error occurs when controllers fail to maintain the proper separation between airliners.
In its August report, the board urged the FAA to adopt a "back-to-basics" approach to training controllers and develop incentives to encourage journeyman controllers to transfer to Chicago.
At the same time, the FAA created a safety czar to head a special investigation of O'Hare operations, which was to have concluded Sept. 20. The results of that effort have not been made public by the FAA.