Smoke in air traffic facility causes travel snafus at O’Hare, Midway

Written By BY ROSALIND ROSSI AND TINA SFONDELES Staff Reporters Posted: 05/14/2014, 02:18am
Array Terminal 3 at O'Hare Airport is unusually busy after a fire in a bathroom ceiling fan sent smoke billowing through an Elgin FAA facility, forcing its evacuation and a shutdown of all air traffic into and out of O’Hare International and Midway airports for about three hours. | Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Talk about a domino effect.

Smoke billowing from a burning bathroom ceiling fan motor caused the evacuation of an Elgin FAA facility Tuesday, triggering the shutdown of hundreds of flights in and out of the nation’s second busiest airport and a ripple effect elsewhere.

Some travelers were trapped in Chicago overnight by the O’Hare International Airport shutdown, and dozens of flights at Midway also were canceled.

As of late Tuesday night, Chicago Department of Aviation officials estimated more than 1,000 flights had been canceled at O’Hare and another 120 at Midway. Hundreds more were delayed or diverted.

Delays at O’Hare late Tuesday were about 90 minutes and were averaging 2 1/2 hours at Midway, according to the aviation department.

Travelers scheduled to leave Wednesday — or headed to the airport to pick up someone — are urged to go online or call their airlines to check the status of their flights.

Some international travelers were stuck in O’Hare for more than four hours. A United flight to Frankfurt was delayed 75 minutes, while a flight to Ottawa was delayed 141 minutes.

The cause? Elgin Fire Department officials said a bathroom ceiling fan motor “burned up” and sent smoke into the heating and air conditioning system of the FAA’s Elgin Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) building, where controllers guide flights to within about five miles of each airport before controllers at those airports take over.

Once the smoke got into the building’s ventilation system, said Elgin Fire Department Captain Anthony Bialek, “It blew all over the place,” which made it hard to pinpoint the source.

Bialek said he believed the fan was in the women’s bathroom but wasn’t sure. Firefighters had to carefully pull down ceiling tiles to track the omnipresent smoke, he said.

“We don’t want to damage stuff in there, so we were being very careful, taking our time,’’ Bialek said. “They never had any flames or heavy smoke, it was just light smoke and they were like, `Where is this coming from?’”

The FAA, in an automated message left at its Chicago phone number at 4:15 p.m., blamed the evacuation on a “faulty motor in a heating and air conditioning system.” That message stated the FAA was “still assessing” the total number of delays, diversions and cancellations due to the incident.

However, with O’Hare’s role as a major international and national hub, ripple effects were inevitable. A United Airlines spokeswoman said “non-O’Hare arrivals and departures were affected,’’ but could give no immediate specifics. At least 194 United flights out of O’Hare were cancelled, she said.

“With an area like Chicago, that’s one of the busiest in the world, any hiccup in the system is going to have far-reaching implications. That’s why they are trying to resume operations as quickly and as safely as they can,’’ said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

At least 30 American Airlines flights were diverted to everywhere from New York to Miami to San Diego during the shutdown, an American spokeswoman said.

By around 3 p.m., flights resumed on a limited basis out of O’Hare and Midway airports after six controllers from the FAA’s Elgin facility drove to the FAA’s Aurora facility to guide planes in from there, Church said.

By then, O’Hare flights were departing every 3 or 4 minutes, instead of the usual 30 seconds, Church said.

However, even at 6 p.m., the departure of an American Airlines flight scheduled for Manchester, England, was running nearly 3 hours and 25 minutes behind schedule. A flight to Dublin, Ireland, was scheduled to depart four hours late.

At O’Hare’s American terminal, blue flight departure boards lit up with bad news in yellow script, showing that flights were “awaiting aircraft” or even “cancelled.” Scores of American travelers waited in long, snaking lines — either for their planes to depart or to book a new flight out of Chicago.

Jennifer Alguire was among those stuck overnight in Chicago by a cancelled American flight to Dallas. Plus, she said, American rescheduled them for a Wednesday morning flight, but would not pay any of the hotel tab due to what the airline called an “FAA issue.”

At midday Tuesday, Alguire was looking for a hotel room for herself, her husband and two children, ages 17 and 7. They had been in Chicago for another child’s graduation.

At least camaraderie blossomed among grounded flyers trying to rebook by cell phone, Alguire said.

“Any time one of us reached someone on the phone at American, we passed on the phone to another person,” Alguire said. “We just kept on telling people, `Don’t hang up. Don’t hang up!’ ”

Peoria natives Dawn Yard and Lauren Underwood had hoped to be in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Tuesday for a corporate gift convention. Instead, their American flight that had been headed to O’Hare wound up on the ground in St. Louis.

“We see the departure board, but we still haven’t been able to get any information about what our next step is,’’ Yard said.

“We hope we’ll still be able to get there.’’

Contributing: Mitch Dudek

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