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No word on when Chicago air traffic will return to normal; more flights canceled

Posted at 5:18 PM, Sep 28, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-28 17:18:06-04

The FAA is not saying when it expects normal air service to return to Chicago O’Hare International and Midway airports.

Hundreds of flights have been canceled since a fire broke out early Friday morning in the air traffic control center in Aurora, Illinois. Other control centers have handled many of the Chicago flights while repairs are made.

The FAA is working on a timeline to return full service to the control center while it replaces the communications network in a different part of the building, the agency said in a press release.

“The FAA is assembling the new components at a remote site, and they will begin to arrive at the center (Sunday). Technicians will work on the installation around the clock, to set up the new equipment, connect it to several undamaged systems, and complete testing,” the release said.

More flights were canceled at the Chicago airports on Sunday. At midday, more than 550 flights had been canceled at O’Hare on Sunday and more than 50 at Midway Airport, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

Flight plans manually transferred

Some flights were coming in and out of those airports, but the process was slowed because air traffic controllers initially had to manually transfer flight data that normally would be communicated by computer, said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Church said the fire damaged the telecom line that transferred flight plans from the airlines to the O’Hare control tower and then to the Aurora control center.

Airlines had to fax flight plans to the control tower, Church said. Because so much information had to be manually transferred, two controllers were needed for each position, he said.

Police say the Friday blaze was set intentionally by Brian Howard, a contract employee at the facility, before he apparently attempted to kill himself.

He’s charged with one count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, a felony that could land him a 20-year prison sentence. No court date has been set.

According to the FBI, Howard, 36, had worked at the center for eight years but was facing a transfer to Hawaii.

Thousands of flights canceled

The effects of the fire were immediate.

O’Hare — the second-busiest airport on the planet, according to Airports Council International — is a main hub for United Airlines and other major carriers, with flights headed to international destinations. When controllers stop flights scheduled to land or depart from there, it has the potential to trigger a line of falling air-traffic dominoes that will ruin travel plans for countless would-be passengers.

By Friday evening, more than 2,000 flights had been canceled in and out of Chicago’s two airports. The ripple effect caused disruptions at airports across the nation.

The FAA said over the weekend that it was managing the air traffic in and out of Chicago “through other large Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin with additional help from high-altitude centers in Minnesota, Kansas, Indiana and Ohio.”