A rare fire started by an FAA employee led to the widespread flight delays, which means these are one-time delays that will impact carrier's punctuality and profits for only one quarter.
Airlines faced a second day of flight disruptions across the U.S. after authorities said an employee set a fire that damaged one of the nation’s busiest air-traffic control facilities.
More than 2,000 flights were canceled yesterday and delays spread to hubs including New York, Atlanta, Washington and Dallas, due to the incident at a Federal Aviation Administration center near Chicago. Airlines had canceled 738 flights in the U.S. as of early today, according to tracking website FlightAware.com.
About half of departing flights at Chicago’s O’Hare International, the second-busiest airport in the nation, were canceled yesterday, and 78 percent at nearby Midway airport, according to FlightAware.com. At Midway this morning, of 76 flights on the flight information screen, 20 were listed as canceled and another 27 as delayed.
“There’s no way to get out of Chicago,” Jose Galindo, 36, said yesterday as he sat on the floor of a United Continental Holdings Inc. terminal at O’Hare. His Delta Air Lines Inc. flight to Atlanta was canceled and he was searching the Internet for alternatives. “Like me, there’s thousands of people trying to purchase a ticket.”
United may cancel as much as a third of its 480 departures from O’Hare today, a spokeswoman, Mary Clark, said in an e-mail. The airline is operating with a “very restricted schedule,” another spokeswoman, Megan McCarthy, said earlier. Delta said it has canceled 40 flights today due to the incident after canceling 289 yesterday.
The damaged facility, the Chicago En Route Center in Aurora, Illinois, oversees high-altitude traffic across the Midwest. Authorities arrested the suspect, Brian Howard, 36, a contract worker at the center, after they found him in the basement of the building cutting his throat.
A timetable for returning to normal operations wasn’t immediately provided by the FAA as authorities assessed damage. The process 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.
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 Airlines Group Inc. expected to cancel 308 flights today because of the incident in Aurora, spokesman Josh Freed said in an interview.
Southwest Airlines Co., with about 90 percent of the passengers at Chicago’s Midway, said it had canceled service there and at the Milwaukee airport yesterday and that disruptions would continue today.
“Airspace restrictions will continue throughout the day and delays and cancellations will be a result as we work hard to operate as many regularly scheduled flights as we are allowed,” Southwest said in a statement this morning.
The FAA said in a statement that it “will continue working with operators through the weekend to reduce disruptions.”
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 gas can and 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.
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 last night 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 is an employee of Harris Corp., an FAA contractor, said Jessica Cigich, a spokeswoman for the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union. PASS represents about 11,000 FAA employees, including some who maintain air- traffic equipment though not contract workers.
“It is an all-hands-on-deck situation to get this situation restored and addressed,” Cigich said.
Jim Burke, a spokesman for Melbourne, Florida-based Harris, said the company operates FAA communications equipment at the Aurora center, and nationally, and is in the process of upgrading it. He declined to comment on whether Howard is an employee, or describe how the company vets workers in the FAA facilities.
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.
Such a facility probably would have 90 to 100 people on duty during a normal day shift and might be expected to monitor as many as 15,000 flights per day, said McGuirk, who spent 25 years working in an FAA en route center.
About 15 to 30 people were evacuated when the incident occurred, according to Dan Ferrelli, a spokesman for the city of Aurora. A 50-year-old man suffering from smoke inhalation was treated at the scene.
Airlines had canceled 2,104 flights in the U.S. yesterday, 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.
What distinguished yesterday’s incident was the way in which the disruptions were centered on Chicago. Weather-related cancellations and delays typically affect airports across a region, socking in the Washington-to-Boston corridor or the big Midwest airport hubs in Minneapolis, Chicago and Detroit.
Controllers in other locations are managing the flights from elsewhere that still need to pass through the airspace.
Flights to the region were disrupted in May after a fire broke out in a separate air-traffic facility in Elgin, Illinois, that handles flights within about 50 miles of Chicago.
With assistance from Michael Sasso in Atlanta, Jennifer Kaplan in New York and Jim Snyder, Susan Decker and Kim Chipman in Washington.
To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at email@example.com; Del Quentin Wilber in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Elizabeth Campbell in Chicago at email@example.com To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org; Romaine Bostick at email@example.com Don Frederick, Carlos Caminada.
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Photo Credit: American Airlines planes sit at their gates while others taxi for arrival and departure at O'Hare International airport in Chicago. Frank Polich / Associated Press
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