FAA: Chicago air traffic center won’t return to full service until mid-October

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All Chicago air traffic was temporarily stopped Friday morning because of a fire and attempted suicide at a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control facility. (Credit: CNN)

CHICAGO — The FAA hopes to have Chicago’s fire-damaged air traffic control center repaired and returned to full service by October 13, the agency said Sunday in a press release.

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

The FAA says it’s bringing in extra technicians to replace the damaged communications network in the building, officially called the Chicago En Route Center.

“The first shipment of replacement equipment is scheduled to arrive late tonight and additional deliveries will occur over the next few days,” the FAA said. “Teams will be working around the clock to install equipment, run cable and restore network connections at the facility.”

More flights were canceled at the Chicago airports on Sunday.

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

The FAA said it’s steadily increasing the number of flights arriving and departing at the airports.

Air traffic controllers managed about 60 percent of normal traffic Sunday at O’Hare and more 75 percent at Midway, the agency said.

Why it took so long

After the fire, 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.”

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