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Chicago Air Traffic Control Fire Still Disrupting Flights Days Later


A fire set in the Chicago air traffic control center on Friday is still crippling the nation's aviation system. The man charged with starting the fire appeared in federal court in Chicago today and was ordered held without bond. The fire completely shut down Chicago's O'Hare and Midway Airports for several hours Friday.

As NPR's David Schaper reports, many flights in and out of the city are still being canceled or facing lengthy delays.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Brian Goeztke of Hobart, Indiana wants to get out of town on a nice, long vacation.

BRIAN GOEZTKE: Trying to get down to Costa Rica and originally I had a flight to Houston and then from Houston to Costa Rica. Well, my flight to Houston was canceled.

SCHAPER: Standing next to his bags in the United Airlines terminal at Chicago's bustling O'Hare Airport, Goeztke says he's now scheduled on a later flight through Newark and he doesn't seem concerned.

GOEZTKE: No problem, no problem. I'm not getting to Costa Rica until like, 9:30 tonight. I was originally supposed to land at 6:30.

SCHAPER: That is, if his flight from O'Hare to Newark isn't delayed, as many other travelers are having to deal with.

BETH WALKER: My name is Beth Walker. I live in Chicago and I'm headed to Phoenix.

SCHAPER: So your flight's delayed?

WALKER: Yes, 65 minutes delayed.

SCHAPER: But Walker says that's not too bad. She too is taking the delay in stride and is relieved it isn't longer.

WALKER: When you're on a tight time schedule - because I have to come back Thursday morning and I have things scheduled - that you get nervous that it's going to be a mess.

SCHAPER: Jim Schneider is a little nervous, too, as he's heading to Austin, Texas.

JIM SCHNIEDER: I get an email notice Sunday night - they said it was on time. So I checked this morning, it's still on time and hopefully we're going to board on time, but we'll see.

SCHAPER: Business and leisure travelers into and out of Chicago's O'Hare and Midway Airports are in this bind because of a fire at the Chicago air traffic control center in suburban Aurora early Friday morning. Authorities say a contract employee with a suitcase full of weapons and gasoline set the fire and then tried to take his own life.

The blaze damaged critical flight control equipment, forcing the Federal Aviation Administration to halt all air traffic to and from Chicago for several hours. With Chicago controllers now working out of other air traffic centers around the Midwest, the FAA says air traffic is slowly getting back to normal, but many air travelers are asking how something like this can happen.

Again, Jim Schneider.

SCHNIEDER: They don't have a backup plan or - it seems a little odd for something this big and important.

BOB MANN: I mean, this is a serious issue.

SCHAPER: Bob Mann is a former airline executive and now an industry analyst.

MANN: There are 20 of these facilities around the nation and they all handle a very intense workload. It's not clear - that if this facility was typical - it's not clear there is any backup plan.

SCHAPER: FAA Administrator Michael Huerta is ordering a 30 day review of all air traffic control contingency plans and security practices at control facilities.

Speaking to the Air Traffic Control Association in Washington this morning, Huerta also said he will not hesitate to make changes within the agency based on the Chicago incident. Several members of the Illinois congressional delegation are calling for the Department of Transportation's Inspector General to investigate as well and they say they may call for Congressional hearings on security and contingency plans.

The FAA says it hopes to have all of the fire damage repaired and the Chicago control center reopened by October 13.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.

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