With construction underway on another O’Hare Airport runway, the Chicago Department of Aviation has been taking extra steps to keep contractors unfamiliar with the airfield’s labyrinthine layout of takeoff and landing strips, taxiways and tunnels from accidentally driving onto where planes are arriving or departing.
Among the safety measures: stationing city workers in trucks at key airfield intersections to block ground vehicles from blundering onto an active runway.
One of the workers assigned to ensure runway safety was involved in a runway mishap on April 2, when he drove a city vehicle onto a runway as an American Airlines jetliner was landing. Officials say the plane was slowing, and no one was hurt.
But it was the latest in a string of potentially serious runway mishaps at O’Hare. It happened days after the Chicago Sun-Times reported there have been 62 runway “incursions” in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 and so far in 2019.
A dozen of those incidents involved city workers subsequently accused of violating safety protocols by driving vehicles into active takeoff and landing zones, according to records obtained by the Sun-Times and interviews that also revealed the workers typically faced little punishment.
Chicago Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee initially would not say whether the April 2 mishap involved one of her employees. Later, Rhee — a Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointee whose department oversees Midway Airport in addition to O’Hare — acknowledged the driver works for her agency.
The worker was handed a five-day suspension, his airfield driving privileges were suspended, and he was ordered to undergo additional training, records show.
Rhee wouldn’t provide details about what happened, saying it remains under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.
But a source knowledgeable about the situation told the Sun-Times the foul-up occurred when the worker was driving to relieve a colleague parked on a taxiway north of Runway 27-Left — an active east-west strip north of O’Hare’s terminals.
The parked city vehicle was there in part to keep out traffic from workers involved in a $95 million construction project that includes repaving nearby Runway 4-Left, which is closed to planes during the work.
It’s not clear where the relief driver entered Runway 27-Left. But he did so without permission from air-traffic controllers and soon found barricades kept him from getting from Runway 27-Left to his colleague on the taxiway, the source said.
“He drove out, then realized, ‘Holy s—, I can’t get through,’ ” according to the source, who said the driver tried to find another way off the runway.
The American Airlines jet, coming in from Atlanta, touched down from the east and at one point was rolling toward the city vehicle. The plane “was on the runway at the same time as the city vehicle,” the source said.
• More than 60 runway mishaps at O’Hare Airport in past 2 1/2 years, March 31, 2019
• Close call at O’Hare: Plane turns into path of 2nd jet, forcing evasive action, March 1, 2019
• Chinese cargo plane strayed dangerously close to departing United jet at O’Hare, Jan. 11, 2019
• Despite O’Hare safety boasts, FAA slammed city’s handling of winter operations, March 9, 2018
• 90 airfield mishaps at O’Hare Airport since 2015, Aug. 23, 2017
Asked about the incident, FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said: “A vehicle was observed at the intersection of Runway 27L and closed Runway 4L after a flight had landed. The aircraft had already slowed down, and no evasive action was required by the flight crew.”
American spokeswoman Leslie Scott said: “It was after landing, and the aircraft had already greatly slowed its rate of speed. No evasive action was taken, and the aircraft proceeded to the gate normally.”
The driver couldn’t be reached. His Teamsters union representative, contacted by phone, said, “I don’t talk to no reporters,” then hung up.
Rhee, aviation commissioner since last summer, said runway mishaps are taken seriously: “Our goal is none — less than none.”
She said she has “launched a comprehensive review of all safety and security protocols,” including “dissecting . . . every which way” incursions have occurred.
When they have happened, city workers who were involved typically have received suspensions of five days or less, records show.
Rhee’s agency is aiming to “standardize the disciplinary review process” and perhaps “impose higher fines on citations for city as well as non-city employees.”
In a 2016 incident, a worker for a private company that contracts with airlines to load cargo at O’Hare drove a van across a runway where a flight had been cleared for takeoff and begun its “departure roll,” crossed another airstrip, on which another plane had landed, and apparently cut in front of a taxiing jet, records show.
Nobody was hurt. The driver was ticketed and fired.