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Flight cancellations that stranded travelers across the U.S. will take days to unwind as the government works for the next two weeks to fix a Chicago-area air-traffic center crippled by a worker’s alleged sabotage.
More than 180 flights have been scrubbed for today after 900 were erased yesterday because of traffic limits at Chicago’s airports, according to industry-tracking site FlightAware.com. The Federal Aviation Administration said it was making progress and expects to have the fire-damaged center in Aurora, Illinois, fully online on Oct. 13.
“The issue now is you’ve got so many crews and planes out of place,” said George Hamlin, a transportation consultant in Fairfax, Virginia. “You’ve got the chess pieces spread all over the board now and you need to get them all where they are supposed to be before things can get moving.”
Operations are improving at Chicago Midway International Airport and O’Hare International, the nation’s second-busiest airport, as air-traffic control duties are transferred to sites around the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday in a statement.
Southwest Airlines Co., which canceled at least 62 flights yesterday, said in a statement that it expected to run a full schedule out of Midway today. The FAA’s measures left the Dallas-based company “confident in producing a full schedule with minimal possible delays,” the airline said in an e-mailed statement.
The Sept. 26 fire at Aurora’s Chicago En Route Center, about 40 miles west of Chicago, hobbled traffic out of O’Hare and Midway and led to more than 2,000 cancellations around the U.S. that day. The site 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. Howard, of Naperville, Illinois, was charged in U.S. District Court in Chicago with destruction of aircraft facilities.
The FAA said it had “brought in its best technicians from around the country” to repair the center. The first shipment of equipment was due to arrive last night and teams would be “working around the clock,” the agency said.
Days of Delay
Still, it may take days for airlines to move the thousands of passengers affected by the delays, said Hamlin, the president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting.
The industry typically flies planes with at least 80 percent of seats full, he said. “With the small number of empty seats available, trying to accommodate a whole day’s worth of passengers — you do the math,” Hamlin said. “It could be three to five days before that all gets sorted out.”
While airlines have faced similar delays due to storms or computer malfunctions, “that’s actually easier in the sense that at some point the weather stops being bad and you can restore the schedule,” said Robert W. Mann, an aviation consultant and former executive at American Airlines. “Here, it’s unclear what kind of restoration schedule they’ll be facing.”
United Continental Holdings Inc. canceled or delayed more than 300 flights yesterday, according to FlightAware. Regional affiliates such as SkyWest Inc.’s ExpressJet Airlines, which flies commuter planes for large carriers, and American’s Envoy Air Inc. led the list of cancellations, as the major carriers appeared to concentrate on keeping their own, bigger planes running.
Charles Hobart, a United spokesman, and Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for Delta, didn’t return calls seeking comment. United said on its website that it was “offering options for changing travel plans” and directed fliers to check online for help.
–With assistance from Alan Levin and Del Quentin Wilber in Washington, Elizabeth Campbell in Chicago and Michael Sasso in Atlanta.
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