Control center fire forces cancellation of five Sea-Tac-Chicago flights

Flight delays caused by a fire at a busy regional air traffic control center near Chicago on Friday may ripple into weekend airline schedules as the nation’s airlines scramble to reposition their planes and crews in the wake of 1,800 flight cancellations at Chicago’s two busy airports.

While the normal late night lull in flight activity will allow airlines extra time to get their aircraft, pilots and crew members in position for Saturday’s early flights, some flights that use planes and crews that were routed through Chicago on Friday might not be in position to handle their weekend flights.

Passengers bound for either of Chicago’s two airports, O’Hare and Midway, from Sea-Tac Airport on Friday morning faced cancellations or long delays after the fire shut down all flights to the Windy City for five hours.

Airlines canceled five flights outright from Sea-Tac to Chicago, two to O’Hare and three to Midway, Friday morning and early Friday afternoon. Other scheduled flights were operating on the route as much as six hours behind schedule. An airport spokesman told The Seattle Times Friday afternoon that a total of 15 flights at the airport had been canceled, with 77 delayed flights.

Chicago is a major hub for three airlines, American, United and Southwest. That meant the cancellations and delays created a tidal wave of missed connections for travelers changing planes in the Illinois metropolis.

Nationwide, airlines reported canceling some 1,800 flights headed to and from Chicago on Friday.

The flight shutdown happened after a fire in the basement of a regional flight control center in Aurora, west of Chicago, forced the evacuation of the building. That center handles flights headed to and from Chicago and other Midwest cities as well as those flying over the region.

Authorities say the investigation is focused on a contract employee who was working at the Aurora site. He was found in the building’s basement suffering from burns and self-inflicted knife wounds, according to Thomas Ahern, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which was taking part in the investigation.

The 36-year-old employee worked for the Federal Aviation Administation contractor that supplies and maintains communications systems at air-traffic facilities, said Jessica Cigich, a spokeswoman for Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union that represents FAA technicians.

Authorities were preparing to search the suspect’s home in nearby Naperville. No charges have been filed, and the suspect’s name was not released.

The flames badly damaged the Aurora center’s fiber-optic equipment, leaving controllers unable to talk with pilots, Cigich said.

The FAA, which operates the nation’s air traffic control system, transferred the monitoring of flights handled in the Chicago center to Indianapolis. That center, however, has a limited ability to cope with flights originating in Chicago because there is no automated way to transfer flight plans to the Indiana center. Those flight plans must be entered into that center’s system manually, some sources reported.

The delay in handing over the Chicago flights to other control centers caused some FAA critics to question the agency’s backup plans.

“This is a nightmare scenario when we thought systems were in place to prevent it,” said aviation analyst Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University in Chicago. “Technology is advancing so fast that … there’s less of a need for air traffic control to be so geographically oriented. I think the FAA’s going to find itself under a microscope.”

While limited flights were allowed to take off from Chicago about five hours after the shutdown, it wasn’t clear when the system would return to full capacity. Dozens of flights scheduled to leave Chicago airports Friday evening were canceled.

Both Sea-Tac Airport and Federal Aviation Administration officials Friday advised Saturday passengers to check with their airlines to see if their flights will be operating on time.