By Brad Edwards, Samah Assad
CHICAGO (CBS) — There are policies and protocols in place to keep airfields – like O’Hare and Midway international airports – safe, and if someone makes a mistake there are serious accountability measures to prevent it in the future.
But an incursion at Midway calls that system into question, and Federal Aviation Administration officials won’t give clear answers for why it wasn’t reported or recorded.
CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards obtained audio and visuals of airport communications, and internal memos, from the incident to piece together what happened. These records revealed both the air traffic control tower, manned by FAA employees, and the Chicago Fire Department were aware of the incident.
Still, there is no record of it on the FAA’s publicly available runway incursion database that’s supposed to track when these incidents happen. According to the FAA, an incursion is, “any occurrence at an aerodrome involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and take off of aircraft.”
“I would classify this as a government cover-up of an incident that put the citizens and passengers at risk,” said an informant with intimate knowledge of the airport and the incursion in question.
According to the informant, and corroborated by other sources and internal memos, a Fire Department emergency vehicle was training on March 7 at 12:53. p.m. on the Midway airfield.
Two memos describe it as an active runway. A visual from the incident shows Southwest flight 1156 nearby.
According to the memos, Fire Department employees were in the training vehicle, including the trainee driving and an instructor. They were in communication with traffic controllers, who monitor and give instructions on movement in the airfield.
The source said the Fire Department employees asked the tower for instructions. A female traffic controller replied, asking them to “hold short of runway 31 center,” which the source said “means to stay in place, do not make any attempts to cross the runway until given permission.”
The traffic controller can be heard in the audio, instructing the vehicle to: “Cross runway 31 right, hold short of runway 31 center.”
But it appears she misspoke and corrected herself, saying: “…I’m sorry. Cross runway 31 left, hold short of runway 31 center.”
She repeated that same instruction two more times.
But the training vehicle, which responded it received the correct communication, still failed to follow the instructions. The vehicle can be seen on the visual crossing the “hold short” line, an area near a runway it should not cross for safety reasons.
View graphic of the incursion:
In response, a male traffic controller acknowledged the error: “[The vehicle] just went past the hold short bars without permission.”
It wasn’t long after that he added, “Don’t worry about it, but you can’t be doing that.”
While this is most likely a low-level incursion, the air traffic controller’s response concerns CBS News travel expert Peter Greenberg.
“You can’t be doing that, but you should be worried about it,” Greenberg said.
“Since 9/11, everyone is on the same frequency, and anybody that’s on the airport ground has to talk to ground control,” he added. “They have to clear you before you cross any line. And if they [don’t] that’s a huge violation.”
Greenberg breaks down, moment by moment, how this incursion happened in the video below.
No Record, No Discipline, No Accountability
There were 10 reported incursions at Midway this year. All that have been categorized by the FAA are low level, like the March 7 incident that went unreported.
But CBS 2 found even though there were others reported before and after that incident, the March 7 incident isn’t listed, even though it meets the FAA’s own criteria for an incursion.
The FAA told CBS 2 the agency has no record of it and therefore is not investigating the incident or the traffic controllers – one who made the initial directional error, and the other who said, “Don’t worry about it, but you can’t be doing that.”
But the Fire Department does have records describing the incident in detail.
A memo shows the instructor reported it to the assistant deputy fire commissioner after the incident, and blamed the trainee driving.
In his narrative of the incident, he wrote the trainee “did not stop before hold short, but after” but also admitted he didn’t keep his eyes on the road the entire time. “At that moment, before I looked up…I was telling her, ‘Remember to clear 31C and hold short 31R, but when I looked up, it was too late,” he wrote.
He also blamed the traffic controllers, writing one “scolded us for passing hold short,” and the other for saying “not to worry about it.”
He added a note that said, “Initial [air traffic controller] was confusing the movement, as she was correcting herself 3x’s, before getting it right.” But the audio said the opposite is true.
Fire officials took the incident seriously enough that in a memo from a fire captain to the assistant deputy fire commissioner, the captain indicated the instructor may have distracted the trainee during the run.
“The trainer should not be asking questions at that time. This causes the member driving to have to inquire via the dispatcher repeat or ‘say again’ the instructions given. On an Active Runway, this isn’t a good thing,” the captain wrote.
She also wrote the trainee said the air traffic control tower had to give repeated instructions “due to all of the interjections” from instructor, even adding “there was an incursion caused due to him instructing her to proceed when the Tower had instructed her to hold short at 31 Center.”
The memo raises red flags about past issues with the same instructor.
“The 2 other ladies passed but not without having similar experiences with the Trainer,” the captain wrote. “How much in fines is that again?”
Incursions can result in penalties, such as fines or loss of certain job privileges, Greenberg said.
“It’s not like running a stop sign and the cops don’t see you,” Greenberg said. “Everybody is seeing you here.”
That’s what happened to a Chicago fire captain in 2015 involved in an incursion, memos show. He had some driving privileges suspended for nine months.
But there’s no indication any discipline was issued to anyone involved in the case of the March 7 incursion. The FAA said it is not investigating the incident because it has no record of it, and the Fire Department told CBS 2 it could not issue discipline against its own employees because the FAA has not recorded it as an incursion.
In a statement to CBS 2, Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said:
“The Chicago Fire Department (CFD) takes airfield safety very seriously, and while this incident was minor in nature, a thorough investigation was opened. Ultimately, this incident was not classified as an airfield incursion by the FAA — the authority in this matter — and no discipline was issued. CFD continues to work with the FAA and CDA to ensure the highest level of safety at Chicago’s airports.”
Greenberg said a worst-case scenario is a collision. Less severe incidents, like the March 7 incursion, can potentially divert flights and create delays – more of a reason, he says, why all incursions should be reported.
CBS 2’s source familiar with the incident said incursions have the potential to be “extremely dangerous.”
The department of aviation has not responded to any of CBS 2’s repeated phone calls or emails with questions about what action they took after the incident.
The FAA in a statement said: “The FAA’s top priority is safety” and that it “continues to investigate firefighters’ concerns as part of its ongoing investigation into airfield safety in Chicago. We will consider all pertinent information as part of that investigation.” However, it confirmed there was no investigation into the March 7 incident.
“There should be systems put in place to make sure that this doesn’t happen,” CBS 2’s source said. “It scares me that a governing body…would just turn its back on something like this and cover it up rather than just bring it to light.”