Chicago Flights Disrupted After Smoke Fills Radar Center

Airlines flying into Chicago O’Hare International, the second-busiest airport in the U.S., were disrupted because of smoke in the radar facility that tracks planes in the area.

Canceled flights topped 600 at O’Hare and totaled about 75 at nearby Chicago Midway International, while other aircraft were delayed, the Chicago Department of Aviation said. Airport operations remained crimped even after the three-hour evacuation at a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration control center.

O’Hare’s status as a hub for American Airlines Group Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc., the largest U.S. carriers, spread the fallout beyond Chicago. While all departure routes out of O’Hare were open by 4 p.m. Chicago time, arrivals ran at only 75 percent of a typical weekday’s pace, said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

After O’Hare, the airports most affected by canceled departures today were New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental, both of which are United hubs, according to industry data tracker FlightAware.

Bush trailed only O’Hare in the number of inbound cancellations, while Dallas-Fort Worth, a hub for American, was No. 2, FlightAware data showed.

Smoke Detection

Smoke was detected at the Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control, known as Tracon. Along with similar facilities in New York and Southern California, the Chicago center is among the busiest in the country. It controls aircraft in about a 50-mile (80-kilometer) radius.

All FAA employees were evacuated from the center in Elgin, Illinois, at about 11:30 a.m. local time, after smoke originated in a motor in the air conditioning and ventilation system, the agency said in a statement. Operations immediately were transferred to another FAA center, in Aurora, Illinois. There was no fire, the agency said.

In the hour after the evacuation, controllers logged 17 flight operations in the region covered by center, compared with 214 in the previous hour, Church said. Controllers were able to return to the Tracon at 2:45 p.m. local time, Church said in an interview. It may take hours to get the area’s airports back to normal, he said.

The FAA also confirmed in a statement that its employees had returned to the radar facility and are now working to clear the backlog of delayed flights.

The incident was the second in the past two weeks in which the FAA has had to halt flights for an equipment issue. Flights to Los Angeles were temporarily stopped on April 30 after an air-traffic computer system crashed as a result of trying to track a high-altitude U-2 spy plane, according to the agency.

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