O’Hare International Airport continued to struggle with cancellations Tuesday as Mother Nature threatened to throw yet another monkey wrench into the situation at the world’s busiest airport.
The National Weather Service predicted that thunderstorms — perhaps packing lightning — will hit the Chicago area sometime between Wednesday night and Thursday night.
The storms would be the first major weather challenge air traffic controllers would face since a fire Friday shut down an Aurora Federal Aviation Administration facility, requiring controllers in several states to assume the facility’s responsibilities.
“Thunderstorms are huge problems for air traffic controllers, even on a regular day. You have to reroute planes so they don’t go through them, and this would be their first time trying to do that from backup facilities,” National Weather meteorologist Gino Izzo said Tuesday.
“It will certainly be the biggest weather challenge since the incident on Friday,’’ Izzo said.
In a statement issued shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday, the FAA said it was “closely monitoring the weather outlook in the Chicago area and is working with the airlines on weather-related contingency plans in anticipation of predicted thunderstorms in the region over the next several days.”
Even President Barack Obama planned to avoid the situation when he flies into Chicago Wednesday evening to deliver a speech at Northwestern University and headline a fundraiser for Gov. Pat Quinn. He’s flying into Gary, a White House official said.
Thousands of flights in and out of Chicago have been canceled since an FAA employee under contract allegedly set the fire in a basement communications room and then tried to kill himself shortly before 6 a.m. Friday.
O’Hare International Airport, which only last week regained its title as “world’s busiest” based on total flights through Aug. 31, continued to rack up the most canceled flights in the nation Tuesday. Flightstats.com showed it had 267 cancellations Tuesday — an improvement from Monday’s 326 cancellations.
But the FAA’s calculations about the situation made it appear little progress had been made overnight at O’Hare. As of noon Monday, the FAA said O’Hare was moving “more than 80 percent” of the “average Monday traffic for the past two months.” As of 1 p.m. Tuesday, the FAA indicated that percentage had slightly dipped, and O’Hare was moving “almost 80 percent” of “the average Tuesday traffic for the past two months.’’
In addition, both Flightstats.com and the FAA calculations made it appear that movement in and out of Midway was getting worse Tuesday.
FlightStats.com listed Midway with six cancellations Tuesday, up from three on Monday. The FAA said Midway was moving “about 85 percent” of its normal traffic for a Tuesday as of 1 p.m. Tuesday. That compared to “more than 90 percent” of average traffic for a Monday as of noon Monday.
The FAA’s Tuesday update indicated that cleaning crews and technicians were working “around the clock” to clean the Aurora center’s ventilation system and other smoke-damaged areas and to install new communications equipment, cabling and the infrastructure to support it.
FAA officials have predicted that the Aurora facility, called the Chicago En Route Center, will not be up to full speed until Oct. 13. Some of its staff has been dispatched to surrounding facilities.
Four other FAA centers are now directing the high-altitude traffic once covered by the Aurora center. In addition, 19 other FAA facilities have made adjustments to fill in the gap while the Aurora center is disabled, the head of the FAA said Monday.