Chicago Flight Disruptions Ease as FAA Shifts Air Control

Air traffic in Chicago, one of the busiest U.S. travel markets, is starting to return to normal as controllers shift people and equipment to handle work once done at a sabotaged radar center.

Flight cancellations for today totaled 174 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, data tracker FlightAware.com reported as of 9 p.m. yesterday. Airlines scrapped about 440 takeoffs and landings there yesterday, roughly 40 percent fewer than a day earlier following the Sept. 26 fire.

“We feel good about how we operated,” said Leslie Scott, a spokeswoman for American Airlines Group Inc., which along with United Airlines is one of the two dominant carriers at O’Hare. Midway International Airport had four cancellations, according to FlightAware.

The Federal Aviation Administration has said it doesn’t expect full operations until Oct. 13 at the Chicago En Route Center, where damage from the blaze quickly snarled air traffic and led to more than 2,000 cancellations around the U.S. within hours. The site about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Chicago handles high-altitude traffic across the Midwest.

Controllers assigned to the Chicago facility were sent to other FAA centers to help restore flight capacity at O’Hare and Midway, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

The fire interrupted controllers’ ability to exchange information on aircraft flight plans, forcing the FAA to load the data manually at other centers. The agency created on-the-fly technology to transmit those flight plans automatically, Huerta said.

‘Contingency Plans’

“We do have contingency plans in place for unexpected incidents,” Huerta said yesterday in a speech at an Air Traffic Control Association conference near Washington. “On Friday morning, we activated our plan and this is why we have been able to keep air traffic moving.”

The FlightAware data showed that counting delays and cancellations, about 40 percent of flights were disrupted yesterday at O’Hare, the second-busiest U.S. airport. O’Hare had the highest late-arrival rate this year through July, at about 34 percent, according to U.S. Transportation Department data.

American scrubbed 78 O’Hare departures yesterday out of the normal 520, Scott said. Southwest Airlines Co. grounded two flights, in line with normal operations at Midway, said Brad Hawkins, a spokesman.

Delta Air Lines Inc. has no Chicago cancellations, said Morgan Durrant, a spokesman. United, a unit of United Continental Holdings Inc., projected that yesterday’s operations at O’Hare would be at least 75 percent of normal, said Mary Clark, a spokeswoman.

Regional Operations

For now, United’s regional airline partners are feeling the brunt of the cancellations, said Tracy Lee, vice president of network operations.

The FAA is allocating United and other airlines operating a certain number of departures per hour, and to accommodate the greatest number of passengers United has begun filling those slots with its large mainline jets and canceling smaller commuter flights, Lee said.

Huerta ordered reviews of emergency procedures and security as lawmakers questioned how one man armed with gasoline and knives crippled the U.S. air-traffic system.

Authorities arrested Brian Howard, 36, a contract worker at the Chicago center, after they found him in the basement of the building cutting his throat, according to a court filing. Howard, of Naperville, Illinois, was charged in U.S. District Court in Chicago with one count of setting fire to an air-navigation facility.

Howard made his initial criminal-case appearance yesterday in Chicago and was ordered detained by U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Mason.

Twenty of 29 racks of computers driving the communications equipment at the Chicago center were destroyed by fire and water damage, Huerta said, leading to a decision to rebuild the facility’s systems.

The FAA earlier said it “brought in its best technicians from around the country” to repair the center. Teams will be “working around the clock,” the agency said.

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