How Chicago Unions Make O’Hare Runways Less Safe

One City of Chicago employee had two runway incursions in a single day and thanks to union rules wasn’t even fired. Indeed, not a single one of 5 city workers who drove vehicles improperly on O’Hare runways were terminated.

Last summer, a city of Chicago employee who works on the airfield at O’Hare Airport drove a vehicle into what’s called a “runway safety area” — and proceeded to do something quite unsafe.

Without clearance, he lingered there as a Korean Air jetliner took off and “overflew his vehicle” at more than 200 miles an hour.

…Another one of those five workers, a motor truck driver, is still on the city payroll and working at O’Hare despite having been blamed for three separate foul-ups — two “runway incursions” in 2020 and a 2021 “surface incident” in which he was driving a city vehicle on an airfield and “cut right in front of” a taxiing aircraft that had “to hit the brakes,” the records show.

On October 15, 2020 an American Airlines regional jet had to abort its landing because a city employee drove a truck onto the runway. Another employee came within 1200 feet of a moving aircraft when they went the wrong way. A third employee crossed the same incorrect active taxiway two times in short period. That driver also “cut off a SkyWest Airlines aircraft on a taxiway.” The pilot of that aircraft disputes the employee’s claim that “The [plane] had a lot of room and they did not have to use brakes.” Thanks to Teamsters Local 700, he kept his job, as did the member of Laborers Local 1001.

Credit: Chicago Department of Aviation

The only way this driver lost their job was because they weren’t a citizen, and their work authorization ended.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. So what is your point? We wouldn’t have any work laws without unions. No minumum wage, no 40 hour work week etc. Humans make mistakes, no one is 100% perfect its impossible. So anyone who makes a mistakes should now be fired? It’s because of people like you unions exist in the 1st place…

  2. Exactly what suggests that the employee’s membership in a union had ANYTHING to do with the safety issues or how they were handled? Some of the very same people who hammer “cancel culture” on this website are some of the very people demanding that low-wage workers who probably have received little training and no retraining be fired when they make a mistake.

    Again, another non-story.

  3. Your Daddy, the point is to inflame readers (on both sides of the issue) who will click and comment. This will degenerate into a polarized (non) discussion. Without failure, there will be comments that throw darts at you. You will feel obliged to respond (even if politely). And, the vicious circle (and clicks) spiral out of control. Don’t engage. Don’t be used.

  4. All three of these comments were asinine. You wouldn’t be feeling this way if you or a loved one/friend died because of their incompetence. Here is a little bit of information showing that the wonderful unions protect their own.

    Hundreds of New York City public school teachers accused of offenses ranging from insubordination to sexual misconduct are being paid their full salaries to sit around all day playing Scrabble, surfing the Internet or just staring at the wall, if that’s what they want to do.

    Because their union contract makes it extremely difficult to fire them, the teachers have been banished by the school system to its “rubber rooms” — off-campus office space where they wait months, even years, for their disciplinary hearings.
    Because the teachers collect their full salaries of $70,000 or more, the city Department of Education estimates the practice costs the taxpayers $65 million a year. The department blames union rules.

  5. It’s virtually impossible to fire union workers, particularly in strong unions, such as the Teamster and/or AFL/CIO. Any termination is countered with a grievance, and typically the union worker is reinstated with back pay. This is one of the many benefits of being a union worker – you literally won’t be fired unless you’re caught on video doing something extremely egregious – and even then the odds are in the worker’s favor.

  6. Lee, no, the actual point is that union employees in Chicago have no accountability and everyone who comes through ORD is less safe because of that. You’re welcome.

  7. Your daddy

    You are so right. Without union’s, this country would still be working for peanuts as the American oligarchs get richer.

  8. Union dollars flow to political campaigns. Elected officials protect unions and the flow of donations.
    Follow the dollars to ORD unions.

    Feb 2019- CHICAGO (CBS)–The Chicago metropolitan area was ranked as the most corrupt U.S. city in a new report from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

    Along with Chicago, Los Angeles topped the list of the most public corruption convictions in America, based on the number of federal corruption convictions between 1976 and 2017. Chicago had 1,731 convictions during that time period, while the Central District of California had 1,534. The Manhattan area had 1,327 and Miami had 1,165, according to the report. Washington, D.C. had 1,159.

  9. @Bob “Good employees don’t need unions. Only bad ones do.”.

    You the new CEO at Starbucks?

  10. Ah, yes, those pesky unions, almost as bad as regulations. Nothing bad would ever happen in the author’s unregulated free-market dream world! And if it did, the matter could simply be paid off at the market-clearing price. Nothing to see!!!

  11. Used to work around dem plains. IAM always got jobs back for employees that should have been fired multiple times.

  12. Surprised to see in the posted incident report, an individual working daily at an airport around airplanes writes the word as “plain”.

  13. I retch each time I hear baloney like “union workers can’t be fired” (hogwash.) Only INCOMPETENT MANAGEMENT can’t seem to fire employees for just cause. In my consulting practice I see both sides of this transaction every day. After 35+ years of dealing with labor-management relations on BOTH sides of this equation, I am firmly convinced that those making these allegations are either 1) incompetent or untrained to be managers, 2) ideologically against unionization despite federal and state laws (see #1), or simply determined to engage with employees capriciously and do “what they want when they want” including fire employees free of any outside rules or oversight. All ridiculous. Get a grip and recognize that none of you know the true total circumstances here, or in most disciplinary matters, and I would suggest it is far more productive, equitable and smart that a SYSTEM of having more than one person look at a given discipline matter is an improvement for everybody over CHAOS and FAVORITISM which is pretty rampant in work situations.

  14. I was a member of a mechanical construction union. Language in the contract was ” The employer is the sole judge of the workers suitability.” That mens they could fire you without giving a reason.If the union received three “no rehire” letters in a year’s time the member would be called before the Apprenticeship and Training Commitee for evaluation. The commitee could recommend remedial education, probationary period or even bust someone back to Apprentice. This rarely happened. The warning was enough.
    OTOH, the Union took action against unlawful mistreatment, nonpayment or late payment of wages and repeated safety violations. Without Union representation we wouldn’t have stood a chance of having somewhat decent treatment.

  15. Alan, shh, don’t tell. The reality is unions are good for exactly one thing – they protect bad employees. You and I both know this.

  16. It’s too bad most comments are one sided. Unions have been invaluable to the American worker and endangering people on airplanes is really bad. Common sense works this out not political tribalism.

  17. @Bob “Good employees don’t need unions. Only bad ones do.”.
    CORRECTION Good employers don’t need unions, only bad ones do

  18. Unions really are the worst in that they protect the worst employees. Not to mention we have seen tons of corruption when it comes to unions including the involvement of organized crime and also how they push their political agendas.

  19. Two conclusory sentences. That’s all this post says about the connection between unions and these employees. The sentence reads, “One City of Chicago employee had two runway incursions in a single day and thanks to union rules wasn’t even fired.” The second one is almost a repetition of the first: “Thanks to Teamsters Local 700, he kept his job, as did the member of Laborers Local 1001.”

    Mr. Leff doesn’t even make an attempt to explain his reasoning or to present factual information. What union rules is he referring to? What did the company do after these incursions? What did the union do? Were the employees disciplined in any way? Is he referring to internal union rules or (more likely) to the contract between the city and the unions that BOTH sides agreed to?

    This is a hit piece. I’d call it sloppy journalism, but it isn’t even journalism. A journalist, a real writer, or someone who didn’t have an ax to grind would have at least attempted to explain these “union rules” and to discuss whatever steps the city and the union took following these safety violations. Instead Mr. Leff makes no attempt to present any evidence that might support his claims. “The unions done it!” is the sum of this post. What garbage.

  20. Conflate much? Engage in reductive reasoning much? The facts are simple: our nation’s commercial pilots are unionized as are our air traffic controllers. They do a fantastic job. In fact, airline CEOs routinely boast how their UNIONIZED pilots are the best on Earth. Should the ramp workers be fired? Of course! Are those particular rules which protect them a joke? Of course! Are unions inherently bad? I could continue ad infinitum but let’s keep it simple: before organized labor, the United States had no restrictions on child workers. As soon as they could understand instructions, the cherubs were put to work, 6 days a week, with no protections of any kind in case of injury. In fact, the only reason they didn’t work 7 days a week was because of the church. When Americans claim about competing with workers in Vietnam who early $1 a day for their work, IT IS THE UNION MOVEMENT which protects Americans from such exploitation. My advice? Invest in a Starbucks franchise. With a functional NLRB, the organized labor movement in the USA is coming for every example of union-busting scum in this country and won’t stop until all of them pay a living wage. Then, you’ll see what unions are all about. After all, it was the unions who forced the deBlasio administration and, later, the Cuomo administration to raise the minimum wage in NYC and then the whole Empire State to $15 an hour.

  21. @ Lee (the only smart voice herein – but mainly directed at @ Gary)

    “This will degenerate into a polarized (non) discussion.”

    Probably true – but it doesn’t have to be so – readers could decide to question how airport driver safety is actually managed.

    And Gary could make some attempt to research / inform his readership and avoid wantonly (click-bait) misleading content facile and misplaced “logic”.

    What Gary doesn’t tell his readers:

    – Drivers at airports need two authorities (1) security badge (2) authority to drive airside
    – These are issued under the ultimate discretion of the airport operator (e.g. Chicago Dept of Aviation)
    – These are subject to annual renewal (need and testing of airside driving rules)
    – Airside driving authority is divided up according to the where the driver needs to go (e.g. airside roads/ aprons vs additionally taxiways plus runways)
    – Radio and proficiency in communications is needed for the latter (to obtain clearance from ATC to enter taxiways / runways)
    – There are reported 14,000 individual divers with ID / security and airside driver permissions at a major airport such as ORD – the vast majority would be restricted to airside roads / aprons
    – These drivers are employed by a range of employers (e.g. City of Chicago (“City”), airlines, tenants, licensees, and contractors, etc)
    – There are provisions for penalties for any rule violations set under the Municipal Code of Chicago, which range from fines to power to revoke or refuse to reissue the security / ID badge of a violator (under Provision 101-36-356)
    – The Chicago Department of Aviation also specifies the following…”The Commissioner or his or her designee, reserves the right to immediately and permanently revoke driving and access privileges for any person including, but not limited to employees of the City of Chicago (“City”), airlines, tenants, licensees, and contractors…) (per Chicago Department of Aviation
    Ground Motor Vehicle Operation Regulations Manual)
    – The Chicago Department of Aviation also ascribes accountability to the employer

    That’s the background stuff, in short.

    Now here are the rules that drivers are supposed to follow (over and above basic driving rules and competencies for non airside driving on public roads):

    The retention of that knowledge and its practical application / development of airside driver competency will depend on how well that content is trained. The design efficacy of such training is typically a matter for the employer (and not detrained by the individual employee), noting that higher level of driving authority (taxiways, runways) would typically require the driver to demonstrate their competency over some hours of supervised instruction.

    The testing regimen would also need to be efficient at determining the proficiency / competency of the individual driver.

    Now let’s pause to look at the layout of the airside roads at ORD. Google map the aerodrome and take a look.

    Even a cursory look shows that he layout is suboptimal from a safety perspective. One example is that the airside roads on the aprons are situated behind the aircraft bays rather in front of them (as per e.g. BNE INTL) – that means that traffic on the apron airside road has to give way to aircraft who are pushing back off the bay. Another airside road is sitting parallel between two taxiways – a driver thereon would need to give way to aircraft on the numerous interlinking taxiways. Both these examples increase the risk of a vehicle driver failing to give way to an aircraft.

    Note also that the limit of the airside roads are also adjacent to taxiways in many cases (at the edges of the aprons) increasing the risk of a driver inadvertently straying from airside road onto an apron.

    Now lets’ talk about incidents. Let’s suppose that you followed @ Gary’s logic and simply fired any driver that violated the airside driving regulations. It all sounds easy enough. If those pesky unions weren’t there and we could simply ditch the miscreant employees, the airside would be safer place, right? Case closed. It’s obviously the employee at fault. Well, the problem is that is not necessarily so. And if you simply resort to blaming the employee you can miss addressing the root causes of the incident only for such to happen again.

    The alternative is that we look at the incidents and try to work why such events occur and enact appropriate mitigations. Follow the audit path from applicability of the original rules, the effectiveness of the training, the power of the testing regimen, the efficacy of the road / airport signage, the location and nature of hot spots where incidents are more likely to occur, etc (e.g. it’s easy for the driver to lose their situational awareness).

    Incidents can occur wherein the driver ends up in the wrong place (e.g. they have strayed from airside road to taxiway). If they have the base training for airside roads / aprons they are now “lost”. They have no radio or radio training to communicate with ATC. They may not have an idea how to extract themselves from their situation. They will likely become very stressed thereby undermining their power of critical thought.

    To note the incidents cited in the referenced article appear to refer to drivers who would have had the full driver authority (airside roads / aprons and taxiways / runways).

    And then examine the human factors (minutely studied and analysed for safety of operation of an aircraft, but less so for airport operations). Examples of those include drivers being rushed and distracted by demands by their employer to get to the next bay to get the next aircraft off for an on-time departure. In such a situation advocacy on behalf of the employees can be pro-safety. Employers can make demands on individuals, which are inconsistent with maintaining safety and such demands need to be addressed.

    Now it is reported that the airport operator analyses such incidents and uses such to inform their training efforts.

    OK, so now let’s imagine we do indeed have a shite employee – just bad attitude – somehow they’ve based their annual driver competency test, the expectations of employer are reasonable, there are no mitigating factors in airport signage or design, they haven’t been put in a situation that they haven’t been read for, etc. On that day they had a bad attitude.

    In such a situation the airport operator has the legal authority to remove their security / driver authorisations per the Municipal Provisions cited above. And that is exactly the outcome that has been reported in the article cited by Gary above.

    Crucially, once they have had their driver authority removed, they can no longer drive airside. Safety has been ensured with respect to that driver.

    So, no, @ Gary, whether the employee is fired or not, and whether termination is a union matter or not in your personal perception, is irrelevant to the maintenance of safety at the aerodrome. As evidenced by these very incidents, all that is needed to revoke their airside driver authorities.

    Your article is complete nonsense and a very facile effort in union bashing .

  22. Tom, I’m guessing your definition of a “bad employer” is one that wants its employees to actually work to earn their paycheck. The horror! Unions protect workers from work. That is what they do.

    James Trumm, click on the link Mr. Leff provided. It goes into great detail. The City of Chicago is one of the most corrupt organizations on earth. Their contract with the unions was not negotiated. It was a gift in exchange for votes. We the taxpayers paid for it.

    Corbett, take a deep breath. Unions are run by greedy thugs. They busted themselves.

  23. Do you know why the aviation system is as safe as it is? Because instead of instilling fear, regulators encourage people to report these incidents and learn from them.

    That’s it. That’s the fundamental reason. If people were afraid for their jobs they’d never report these things and we’d never be able to learn.

  24. Did no one notice the title says the opposite of the article. Gary, the title has a glaring typo.

  25. Gary, the union bashing does get a little old. Unions = middle class, at least in the USA.

  26. Unions are a cancer, exhibit 5,835.

    And to a previous commenter, yeah, of course airline CEOs are going to say their unionized pilots are the best. The unions has them by the balks. What is the CEO going to say?

  27. it’s ORD. Union or not the guy probably got his job for working a precinct or being someone’s cousin.

  28. Unions protect workers from work. That is what they do.

    I worked for UPS for 35 years, if unions protect workers from work, it didn’t happen where I was.
    UPS is the largest and most profitable transport co. in the world, largely the result of hard working Teamsters

  29. Being grandfathered into the IUOE (181) with a journeyman card straight out of high school, I can definitely say the union is a joke, but it took me roughly 12 years to figure it out.

    JoeBama and his son Snort will get their 10% union kickback one way or another.

  30. To all of these people saying it’s not a big deal it is. I get to drive trucks at Atlanta Hartsfield everyonce in a while for productions. One of the first rules I was taught and went over was if you cross the red/white line you are going to jail. A runway incursion is a serious thing and can’t believe the one has had three times and still employed. That’s crazy. I mean read the letter he doesn’t even know how to spell Plane. This doesn’t sound like a person who needs to be around a dangerous situation like a airport.

  31. A self-labeled “thought leader”, wildly conflating the working class protecting themselves from predatory, exploitive capitalists (who purposefully cut safety corners, valuing pennies over laborer and customer lives as routine business practices) as endangering others. Don’t you suppose one would have to actually have critical thinking skills to become a thought leader?

  32. Private Unions I have no issue with. Public unions I do. But both of them do protect the lazy and incompetent workers. I say this as I have grown up in a private sector union household, and have once worked for a union company. I would never work for another one again, as I negotiate my own salary. I also have the skills that are very much needed.

    These workers should’ve been at least removed from being allowed on the airfield…at the minimum. I used to work for an airline as an avionics mechanic when I got out of the Air Force. Violations like this had severe consequences.

  33. @ Mark says:

    “These workers should’ve been at least removed from being allowed on the airfield”

    The system is indeed in place to do just that (if you read my post above and the source article) – @ Gary has provided no evidence that the unions have stood in the way of a safe outcome in these instances.

    Nor has he even attempted a response to the deconstruction of his facile argument in his article above provided in my post (based on years of font line experience analysing incidents and developing remedial training for airside driving at over a dozen airports).

    On the other hand he has been successful at triggering all sorts of ignorant BS from the ignorant baying hounds herein.

    Click bait BS for the brainless right wing mob…no interest in an informed article or rational debate.

    F—king sad.

    …at the minimum. I used to work for an airline as an avionics mechanic when I got out of the Air Force. Violations like this had severe consequences.

  34. @ Brody

    Well, mate, you could opt to learn from an expert in the field or you can take the dumb option of denigrating an expert on the topic at hand. It appears you took the latter path.

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