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Airlines still plagued with delays after fire in Chicago control center

Airlines were assessing how many flights they could resume two days after an employee at an air- traffic control center allegedly set fire to equipment before attempting suicide.

More than 670 flights were canceled Saturday at Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport, the nation’s second-busiest, and 125 at the Chicago Midway International Airport because of the incident at a Federal Aviation Administration center near the city, the Chicago Department of Aviation said. More than 2,000 flights were canceled the day before as delays spread to hubs from New York to Dallas, according to tracking website FlightAware.com.

“I want to get home,” Joe Trymbiski, 41, said Saturday as he awaited a Southwest Airlines flight out of Midway after his Sept. 26 United Continental Holdings flight to Philadelphia out of O'Hare and a rebooked one got canceled. “You’re supposed to leave yesterday, you get rebooked, and then it’s a whole other day where you don’t know what’s going on.”

The damaged facility, the Chicago En Route Center in Aurora, Illinois, 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.

The FAA sent staff to clean up the facility, dry out equipment harmed by water, assess the damage and evaluate a timeline for restoration of services following the fire and attempted suicide in the center’s telecommunications room, the agency said Saturday.

United canceled a third of its 480 departures from O'Hare Saturday and was monitoring the situation for Sunday, spokeswoman Mary Clark said in an e-mail. Delta Air Lines said it canceled 40 flights Saturday after 289 cancellations Sept. 26 and was evaluating its Sunday schedule.

Rose Quyn, 39, who had spent the week in Chicago with her husband, arrived at Midway Saturday to find her Delta flight home to California had been canceled until Sunday.

“Nobody called,” Quyn said at Midway as her husband busily spoke on the phone nearby after learning they were stranded. “Nobody told us it got canceled. Now we have to find where we'll stay.”

A command center in Warrenton, Virginia, is working with airlines that serve the Chicago-area airports to minimize disruptions, the FAA said. Controllers at centers near Cleveland, Minneapolis and other locations set up special sectors to help handle traffic near Chicago, Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said in an e-mail.

The process of assessing equipment damage 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, which has a hub at O'Hare, estimated it would cancel 308 flights, spokesman Josh Freed said in an interview early Saturday.

Southwest canceled 110 flights Saturday, spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said in a statement.

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 floor panel that had been opened to expose telecommunication cables, according to the affidavit.

They found Howard, shirtless with cut wounds to his arms, 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 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 was an employee of Harris Corp., an FAA contractor, and has been fired, Jim Burke, a spokesman for the Melbourne, Florida-based company said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Burke said the company operates FAA communications equipment at the Aurora center, and nationally, and is in the process of upgrading it.

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.

Airlines canceled 2,104 flights in the U.S. on Sept. 26, 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.

– With assistance from Michael Sasso in Atlanta, Jennifer Kaplan in New York and Jim Snyder, Susan Decker and Kim Chipman in Washington.

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