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A FIRESTORM OF CHAOS IN CHICAGO
By Joe Brancatelli
If we can believe first reports, a disgruntled contract employee of the FAA En Route Control center in the Chicago suburb of Aurora set a fire around daybreak on Friday, September 26. He was later found in the building with apparently self-inflicted knife wounds. Meanwhile, the fire destroyed key equipment, making it impossible for controllers to manage traffic at O'Hare and Midway airports. The result: a storm of delays and cancellations in the Midwest and nationwide. Here's how we've covered developments. Like a travel blog, a Pinter play or one episode of Seinfeld, read backward since the latest item is on top.

10/3/14, 9:30AM ET, FRIDAY
SNOW DAYS ARE NOT THE 'FUNNIST' DAYS

If you happened to be on the road yesterday, you might have had a odd sense of winter. After all, with all the delays and cancellations nationwide, it felt like a snow day. And despite what Mayor "Diamond" Joe Quimby of Springfield says, snow days are not the most fun days of the year when you're on the road.

Nearly six percent of flights nationwide (1,332) were cancelled and only 69 percent of the 23,141 flights ran on-time. Worse, fully 14 percent of flights (3,054) were deemed "excessive" delays, which means at least 45 minutes.

Very poor weather stretching from north to south down the nation's heartland was the immediate cause, but continuing air traffic control problems in Chicago are the nexus of the issue. A total of 577 flights were cancelled at O'Hare and more than 1,400 more were delays. At Midway, more than 300 flights were scrubbed and nearly 500 were delayed.

Today is shaping up better. Cancellations are around 200 at O'Hare and Midway seems normal. But DFW, which had 294 cancellations yesterday, is doing poorly today, too. Nearly 130 flights have already been dumped.

10/2/14, 7PM ET, THURSDAY
RUMORS OF RAIN BRING A STORM OF CANCELLATIONS

The weather geeks predicted severe weather from Texas to Illinois today and that led the airlines into a frenzy of cancellations in Chicago, where air traffic control is still hobbled by last Friday's fire. Southwest Airlines, the big dog at Midway, cancelled 300 of its 474 scheduled arrivals and departures. Over at O'Hare, United and American were equally trigger happy. That has led to more than 500 cancellations, the vast majority of them at the two airlines' commuter carriers. There have also been more than 1,000 delays at O'Hare. The irony of it all? As of 6pm local time, there hasn't been a drop of rain in the Chicago metropolitan area, although forecasters are adamant that a downpour is inevitable.

10/1/14, 2PM ET, WEDNESDAY
A TALE OF TWO AIRPORTS ...

It's a tale of two city airports now. Chicago/Midway has fully recovered from Friday's fire at the air traffic control center in Aurora. Chicago/O'Hare? Not so much. Although things are better so far today--176 take-offs and landings scrubbed--it comes atop 275 cancellations Tuesday and 325 dumped flights on Monday.

Nationwide, however, things have largely returned to early-autumn normal in both on-time performance and cancellations. However, we're still trying to get a handle on the motives of Brian Howard, the man accused of starting the fire in the FAA facility and his self-inflicted wounds.

9/29/14, 10AM ET, MONDAY
THINGS ARE GETTING BETTER, BUT SLOWLY, IN CHICAGO

The FAA says it will be two weeks before computers at the Aurora ATC center are fully up and running. That's scary, but things are very slightly better today at O'Hare Airport. There have been 300 take-offs and landings scrubbed so far today compared to 559 cancellations yesterday. It's very much better at Midway, however, where 14 flights have been scrubbed today compared to 56 yesterday. But if you can avoid Chicago today and tomorrow, do it. That is especially true if you fly into or out of O'Hare using commuter carriers tied to United and American airlines. The vast majority of cancellations have been regional flights as both carriers try to keep mainline jets serving major markets in the air.

9/28/14, 12:45PM ET, SUNDAY
STILL AWFUL AT O'HARE, MIDWAY BETTER

Two days after the fire at the air traffic control facility in suburban Chicago, O'Hare Airport is still a mess. At least 550 departures and arrivals have already been cancelled today compared to 671 all day yesterday. United and American, the two hub carriers, logically seem focused on getting their mainline flights out--albeit with some big delays. Regional-jet operations continue to bear the brunt of the cancellations, so plan accordingly.

Operations at Midway, where Southwest maintains a hub, have improved, however. There were 123 cancellations there yesterday and, so far, "only" 50 today.

An FAA statement issued late last evening buttresses the anecdotal evidence that Midway is recovering more quickly than O'Hare. The FAA said it managed to handle 75 percent of the flights at Midway, but just 60 percent of the normal traffic for O'Hare.

On Saturday, the system nationwide operated at 78.6 percent on-time, better than most days this summer. Of course, it was a light travel day--around 18,000 flights versus 22,000 or more on a weekday--and the Chicago mess accounted for most of the 950 (5.25 percent) cancellations and the 1,700 (9.95 percent) "excessive" delays north of 45 minutes.

9/27/14, 10:45AM ET, SATURDAY
NO SURPRISE: A ROUGH MORNING ON THE ROAD

To the surprise of none of us, Saturday is starting very badly on the road, especially in Chicago, where air travel control continues to be hobbled by the closure of the FAA's En Route Center in Aurora. According to FlightStats.com, more than 600 take-offs and landings at O'Hare have been cancelled and about 60 flights have been scrubbed at Midway. Milwaukee, with 41 cancellations, and Indianapolis and Detroit/Metro are also having more trouble than usual today.

9/27/14, 8:45AM ET, SATURDAY
AMERICAN AIRLINES ADMITS THE OBVIOUS

More than 24 hours after the Aurora fire began causing thousands of cancellations around the country, O'Hare-hubbed American Airlines finally got around to posting a travel waiver. It's here: http://www.aa.com/i18n/travelInformation/travelAlerts.jsp

9/27/14, 8:30AM ET, SATURDAY
IT'S JUST ANOTHER DAY...

The numbers can't tell you everything, of course, but they help a bit. And it turns out that Friday, when you look at the big picture, was kinda, sorta like a mediocre travel day this summer.

According to FlightStats.com, the system ran at 73.97 percent on-time yesterday. There were many worse days to fly this summer. And, in fact, yesterday's performance was higher than the DOT average for travel in June, which was only 72.6 percent.

It is when you drill down that the statistics give a much better sense of the pain. There were 2,315 cancellations yesterday, which was 10.23 percent of all flights nationwide. Of the 2,315, more than 2,000 were into or out of Chicago's two airports, O'Hare (1,566) and Midway (476). Nationwide, another 11.8 percent of flights were delayed at least 45 minutes, which is what the government terms "excessive."

9/26/14, 9:30PM ET, FRIDAY
CHOOSE YOUR LINE CAREFULLY

Here an observation from a JoeSentMe member stuck in O'Hare trying to get home: The vibe in the airport itself doesn’t seem that different than usual--other than the excessively long lines at the ticket counters and customer service desk. The only lines that are almost as long are at the bars along the concourses.

9/26/14, 9PM ET, FRIDAY
SATURDAY'S OUTLOOK: SLOW AND ANNOYING

With the FAA air-travel-control center for Chicago closed by fire, responsibility for that airspace has been transferred to the FAA's much-smaller operation in Indianapolis. That will mean slow going even with tomorrow's smaller schedule. Given that many aircraft and flight crews are out of position, expect many cancellations and lots of unexpected delays. According to FlightStats, more than 150 take-off and landings at O'Hare have already been dropped from tomorrow's schedule.

9/26/14, 8:45PM ET, FRIDAY
HOW BAD WAS IT? THINK SNOWSTORM.

The fire that damaged the FAA En Route center in suburban Chicago this morning has basically destroyed the travel plans of tens of thousands of travelers today. Although final results aren't in, consider these numbers from FlightStats.com. At Chicago/O'Hare, there have been nearly 1,550 take-off and landing cancellations so far. There have been almost 1,100 delays. At Midway, there have been 475 cancellations. Before Southwest Airlines, the big player at Midway, scrubbed its entire schedule, it had managed just eight departures against its schedule of 227 flights. There have also been hundreds of combined cancellations at Detroit, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. And everywhere you look around the schedule nationwide, there are massive delays. Basically, this is the functional equivalent of a massive snowstorm. Nationwide, there have been almost 2,500 cancellations and 5,000 delays. Like I said, the functional equivalent of a snow day.

9/26/14, 8:15PM ET, FRIDAY
AMERICAN TO CHICAGO FLYERS: DROP DEAD

Today's chaos of cancelled flights and long delays in Chicago has caused ripples of problems nationwide. And they aren't going away tomorrow, either. Delta Air Lines gets that and has issued a fairly reasonable travel waiver for about a dozen cities. (It's here.) United Airlines is being a lot less generous with its travel waiver. (It's here.) Southwest Airlines, which basically closed its Chicago/Midway hub today and had trouble in Milwaukee, has a waiver for Chicago flying tomorrow. (It's here.) And American Airlines and US Airways are still among the missing. They've offered travelers no chance to change plans. But, of course, it's not like American has an O'Hare hub or anything...

9/26/14, 7:15PM ET, FRIDAY
THE FAA: LATE AND UNINFORMATIVE IS WHAT WE DO

Apparently, the FAA learned its public relations lessons from the airlines. Their statements are late, uninformative and basically useless. But if you want to see for yourself, here is the FAA's hours-late "update" on today's fire-related systems meltdown.

9/26/14, 6PM ET, FRIDAY
MEANWHILE, PEOPLE EXPRESS FOLDS. MAYBE. KINDA.

Consider this a sideshow given all of the misery in Chicago today: People Express, the absurd non-airline that started this summer using the name of the 1980s-era low-fare carrier, folded today. We think. Since it's not really an airline in the classic sense--it's using planes from an equally shaky carrier named Vision that's doing business as People Express--the rules are a little fuzzy. If we have the story right, the two-plane operation lost one of the aircraft in a ground collision last week. Then the second plane developed engine trouble. That led the pseudo-airline to cancel its schedule today. Then it issued a statement saying it is "suspending service" until mid-October. Don't hold your breath. This was an operation that should have never launched, something we discussed back in July.

9/26/14, 1:15PM ET, FRIDAY
THE SITUATION TURNS NASTY IN CHICAGO

Things have really turned nasty is Chicago, where very little is moving and whatever is going is going very slowly and with Titanic delays. According to FlightStats.com, more than about 1,300 flights into and out of O'Hare have been cancelled so far. More than 700 other flights have been delayed. Over at Midway, there have been more than 350 cancellations and some delays. There are delays cascading throughout the country, partially because the air-traffic-control center hit by fire this morning (see below) was in charge of routing flights over Chicago.

United Airlines has finally posted a travel waiver due to the Chicago situation. It's here: http://www.united.com/CMS/en-US/travel/news/Pages/travelnotices.aspx#ExceptionPolicies Southwest issued its waiver earlier today (see below). We've still seen nothing from American.

And, again, a reminder: With so many flights already cancelled today, it's wise to reassess your weekend travel plans. Lots of aircraft and flight crews will be out of position and there are likely to be many delays and cancellations throughout the weekend.

9/26/14, 11:30AM ET, FRIDAY
AND NOW, CHAOS IN CHICAGO

As if there weren't enough chaos in Europe, now we've got a major crisis in Chicago. Fire at an air-traffic-control facility is causing massive delays and cancellations today.

So far today, according to FlightStats.com, nearly 500 flights into and out of O'Hare have been scrubbed. There are also more than 500 delays. At Midway, there have been more than 200 cancellations. The Chicago problems are naturally causing a cascade of delays around the country, especially at Midwest airports. Milwaukee flights are especially hit.

Southwest Airlines has posted a travel waiver for flights out of Midway and Milwaukee. (http://www.southwest.com/html/advisories/swa_travel_advisory_20148261411742641777.html) As of now, nothing from United or American, both of which hub at O'Hare.

Needless to say, you're going to need patience today. Be prepared for abrupt cancellations and plenty of delays. And be aware that travel over the weekend could also have more-than-usual disruptions. Many aircraft and flight crews will be out of position. So plan carefully. And it might be smart to know your on-airport hotel options in case things spiral totally out of control.

The underlying cause of the problems is a fire at an air traffic control facility in the Chicago suburb of Aurora. Firefighters on the scene found a man with self-inflicted wounds and police believe he deliberately set the fire. Here's the latest from the Chicago Tribune. And, as I always warn you, early details are often wrong, so get out the salt shakers.

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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.