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Call for air centre sabotage probe

A senator is seeking an investigation into how a contract worker was able to sabotage a regional control centre and bring Chicago's two international airports to a halt.

Dick Durbin of Illinois will ask inspectors general at the US Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration to investigate whether there was a security breach when the employee entered the building early on Friday with a suitcase without causing suspicion.

He then started a fire in the basement telecommunications room before attempting to commit suicide.

Brian Howard, 36, of Naperville, Illinois, who had access to the air traffic control centre in suburban Aurora via a swipe card, entered at about 5am Friday, and about 30 minutes later posted a suicide note on Facebook, according to a federal criminal complaint.

Minutes later, someone at the centre called the emergency services to report the fire and a relative who saw the Facebook post also alerted authorities. Paramedics followed a trail of blood past a fuel can, two knives and a lighter and found the suspect, the complaint said.

Democrat Mr Durbin said he was grateful that the FAA was able to get all planes on the ground safely. He said FAA administrator Michael Huerta told him that 23 of 29 computer racks were damaged, and the FAA said it decided to replace the entire central communications network at the centre.

"Thank God nobody lost their lives, but it could have happened in this circumstance," Mr Durbin said.

Illinois' other senator, Republican Mark Kirk, said he wanted an immediate review of the FAA screening process at the site and a report within 30 days outlining future changes.

The centre in Aurora, about 40 miles west of central Chicago, handles planes cruising at high altitudes through the air space as well as those just beginning to approach or completing a departure from airports in the Chicago area. Its responsibilities have been transferred to centres in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis.

Yesterday, 550 flights were cancelled at O'Hare International Airport and 50 at Midway. At the height of the travel misery on Friday, more than 2,000 flights in and out of the airports were cancelled, disrupting travel nationwide.

FokAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said improvements were expected today, although the system would not be fully functional.

Ms Cory said the FAA had been able to increase air traffic and reduce delays by improving direct communication between the centres now handling Chicago's air traffic and by developing new ways to automatically file and transfer airline flight plan information.

The FAA said it conducted employee background checks on contract workers who have access to FAA facilities, information or equipment. Contract employees, like other staff at the Aurora centre, also must have their identification inspected by a perimeter guard and swipe their cards to gain access to the building.

Howard worked at the centre for eight years and was involved with its communications systems. He was recently told he was being transferred to Hawaii.

Mr Durbin said it was possible that Howard's suitcase did not cause concern because security believed he was retrieving personal belongings in preparation for his move.

Howard has been charged with destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, a felony. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

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