Airlines Strive to Clear Stuck Fliers After Chicago Fire

Airlines are assessing how many flights they can resume two days after an employee at an air-traffic control center outside Chicago allegedly set fire to equipment before attempting suicide.

Some 985 U.S. flights had been delayed and 852 canceled as of 12:30 p.m. New York time today, with Chicago airports accounting for most of the disruption, according to the FlightAware tracking website. More than 670 flights were canceled yesterday at O’Hare International Airport, the nation’s second-busiest, and 125 at the Chicago Midway International Airport because of the incident at the Federal Aviation Administration center. More than 2,000 flights were canceled Sept. 26 as delays spread to hubs nationwide.

“I want to get home,” Joe Trymbiski, 41, said yesterday as he awaited a Southwest Airlines Co. flight out of Midway after his Sept. 26 United Continental Holdings Inc. flight to Philadelphia out of O’Hare and a rebooked one got canceled. “You’re supposed to leave yesterday, you get rebooked, and then it’s a whole other day where you don’t know what’s going on.”

The damaged facility, the Chicago En Route Center in Aurora, Illinois, oversees high-altitude traffic across the Midwest. Authorities arrested Brian Howard, 36, a contract worker at the center, after they found him in the basement of the building cutting his throat, according to a court filing.

The FAA, in a statement last night, said it had been able to “steadily increase air traffic and reduce delays” by improving communication between air-traffic centers that had taken over responsibilities from the damaged site. The agency has decided to completely replace a central communications system in a different part of the Aurora center. New components were expected to begin arriving today, the FAA said.

‘Around the Clock’

“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 agency said. “Cleaning crews are also continuing to work around the clock to ensure a safe work environment.”

The process of assessing equipment damage was delayed by blood covering the crime scene, said a person familiar with the incident, who asked not to be identified because of a continuing investigation.

Regional affiliates such as Skywest Inc.’s ExpressJet Airlines, which flies commuter planes for large carriers, and American Airlines Group Inc.’s Envoy Air Inc. led today’s list of cancellations. Major carriers appeared to concentrate on keeping their own, bigger planes on schedule.

The FAA “expects a substantial increase in operational capabilities” by Monday, the agency said in the statement.

Airline Cancellations

United canceled a third of its 480 departures from O’Hare yesterday and was monitoring the situation for today, Mary Clark, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based company, said in an e-mail. Delta Air Lines Inc. said it canceled 40 flights yesterday after 289 cancellations Sept. 26 and was evaluating its Sunday schedule.

On its website, United said it was “offering options for changing travel plans in some cases” and directed fliers to check online for help. Dallas-based Southwest said travelers with a reservation to or from Chicago or Milwaukee could cancel or reschedule flights on its site.

Midway Delay

Rose Quyn, 39, who had spent the week in Chicago with her husband, arrived at Midway yesterday to find her Delta flight home to California had been canceled until today.

“Nobody called,” Quyn said at Midway as her husband busily spoke on the phone nearby after learning they were stranded. “Nobody told us it got canceled. Now we have to find where we’ll stay.”

A command center in Warrenton, Virginia, is working with airlines that serve the Chicago-area airports to minimize disruptions, the FAA said. Controllers at centers near Cleveland, Minneapolis and other locations set up special sectors to help handle traffic near Chicago, Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said in an e-mail.

Remote Facility

If the main computers and communication systems were destroyed, air-traffic control in that area of the Midwest may have to be moved to a remote facility and controllers will be temporarily transferred there, said the person.

American, which has a hub at O’Hare, estimated it would cancel 308 flights, spokesman Josh Freed said in an interview early yesterday.

Southwest canceled 110 flights yesterday, spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said in a statement.

Howard, of Naperville, Illinois, was charged in U.S. District Court in Chicago with destruction of aircraft facilities in connection with the fire.

He arrived at the building, about 40 miles west of Chicago, at 5:06 a.m., dragging a suitcase, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit filed in court. About an hour later, police and firefighters responded to a call about smoke.

Paramedics followed a trail of blood to the basement, where they saw a floor panel that had been opened to expose telecommunication cables, according to the affidavit.

They found Howard, shirtless with cut wounds to his arms, in the process of using a knife to slice his throat, according to the document.

Facebook Post

About 30 minutes after he had entered the building, a message was posted on a Facebook account held in Howard’s name saying he was about to take out the center “and my life,” according to the affidavit.

“Do your best to move on quickly from me please,” the message said.

Howard survived and was being treated at a hospital. He faces a possible sentence of as many as 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.

He had worked on telecommunications in the facility for about eight years, according to the affidavit. He was recently told he would be transferred to Hawaii.

The suspect was an employee of Harris Corp., an FAA contractor, and has been fired, Jim Burke, a spokesman for the Melbourne, Florida-based company said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Burke said the company operates FAA communications equipment at the Aurora center, and nationally, and is in the process of upgrading it.

20 Centers

One of 20 en route U.S. air traffic control centers, the Aurora facility monitors flights that are beyond 30 miles or 40 miles of an airport and typically above 15,000 feet, said Gregory “Sid” McGuirk, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Airlines canceled 2,104 flights in the U.S. on Sept. 26, according to FlightAware.com. That’s still short of the disruptions associated with heavy winter snowfalls, such as the 7,100 trips scrubbed on Feb. 13, the most in the U.S. since 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.

“I just keep my fingers crossed,” said Raajitha Dsara, a 30-year pregnant woman who was visiting a cousin in Chicago and was initially scheduled to fly to her new home in Portland at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26, said yesterday at Midway.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE