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Flights Begin To Resume Out Of Chicago Airports After Fire At A Control Center

September 26, 2014 - This morning about 6 AM, a contract employee had set multiple fires at Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center shutting down air traffic to the world's second-busiest airport, O'Hare International Airport and Midway Airport.

Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center handles aircraft at high altitudes and  those approaching or leaving Chicago airports. Officials reported the 50-year-old contract employee tried to kill himself. He was taken into custody and is being treated for smoke inhalation, self-inflicted knife wounds to his wrists and burns to his body.

The contract employee has been identified as Brian Howard, 36, of Naperville, Illinois. At this time Howard has been charged with one count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities and a complaint has been filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago.


The employee used gasoline as an accelerant causing fire damage to equipment and building wiring. The FBI has reported this incident is not related to terrorism, there is no information on a possible motive and the employee was authorized to be at the site. Another onsite employee was treated at the scene for smoke inhalation. The fire was extinguished by 7 AM.

The Chicago En Route Center was evacuated due to a basement fire in the telecommunications room. Because of the evacuation, the FAA issued a ground stop for flights in the area and flights heading to the Chicago metropolitan area and had transferred airspace management to adjacent air traffic facilities. 

Flights that were already in the air destined to the Chicago area were allowed to continue at a reduced rate, or proceed to an alternate destination. Flights are currently arriving and departing in the Chicago area at a reduced rate.



The FAA said "flights have begun arriving and departing to and from the Chicago area at a reduced rate." Over 1,800 flights at O'Hare International Airport and nearby Midway Airport have been cancelled. The FAA has conducted a preliminary damage assessment, and expects to gain access to the telecommunications area this evening to conduct a more thorough assessment.

After technicians fully review the damage, they will be able to develop a timeline for repairs, replacement, and full restoration of services at the facility. The FAA currently is managing Chicago Center traffic through adjacent high altitude radar centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. Those facilities are working with the Chicago Terminal Radar Approach (TRACON) facility in Elgin, Illinois and other surrounding large TRACONs in areas such as South Bend, IN, Rockford and Moline IL, and Milwaukee, WI to track flights on radar and manage departures and arrivals in Chicago Center airspace. The FAA is re-routing overflights around the airspace.

Update - September 27, 2014 - The Federal Aviation Administration reports it continues to increase the air traffic flow into and out of the Chicago-area airports today, following a criminal incident and fire yesterday at a high-altitude radar facility in Aurora, IL. Air traffic controllers at other FAA facilities safely managed about 60 percent of the flights as compared to last Saturday at O'Hare and over 75 percent of the flights at Midway. The FAA expects a substantial increase in operational capabilities by Monday.

The FAA is working closely with the airlines to manage the traffic flow. The agency also has been able to steadily increase air traffic and reduce delays by improving direct communication between the FAA facilities that are now managing air traffic in the Chicago area, and by developing new methods for automatically filing and transferring airline flight plan information. Air traffic controllers initially had to file flight plans manually after yesterday's fire compromised some communications systems. The FAA is using all other tools at its disposal to reduce disruptions as much as possible.

After inspecting the damaged equipment at the Chicago En Route Center, the FAA has decided to completely replace the central communications network in a different part of the same building, to restore the system as quickly as possible. The FAA is assembling the new components at a remote site, and they will begin to arrive at the center tomorrow. Technicians will work on the installation around the clock, to set up the new equipment, connect it to several undamaged systems, and complete testing. Cleaning crews are also continuing to work around the clock to ensure a safe work environment.

The FAA is developing a timeline for transferring service back to Chicago Center, but in the meantime is working to safely accommodate flights in and out of the Chicago area through its other facilities, significantly reducing impacts on travelers.

Update - September 29, 2014 - FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta today announced the agency is conducting a 30-day review of contingency plans and security protocols for its major facilities, after a criminal action by a contractor on Friday knocked out communications equipment at an FAA high-altitude air traffic facility in Aurora, IL. "I do understand the traveling public's frustrations with flight delays and cancellations," Huerta said. "The air transportation system is vital to our economy and people rely on it to function 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I want to make sure that we have the most robust contingency plans possible."

The first shipment of replacement communications equipment arrived at the Chicago En Route Center in Aurora, IL overnight, and technicians started cable work, configuration and installation today. The FAA expects additional shipments of equipment to arrive tonight and tomorrow night and has technicians and material available to start quickly installing the equipment as it arrives.

Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers continued to increase the volume of flights for air travelers into and out of the Chicago-area airports today. By noon local time, more than 80 percent of the average Monday traffic for the past two months was flying in and out of OHare, and more than 90 percent of the two-month Monday average traffic was operating at Midway.

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