Airport Shutdowns Impact ONA Travelers

Update: 2:15 p.m. CT

A fire at a Chicago-area air traffic control center, which resulted in hundreds of flight cancellations at both O’Hare and Midway international airports, has led to Online News Association panelists missing their sessions and the delay of a keynote speaker on Friday.

More than 1,200 flights were canceled and 200 delayed, according to FlightAware.com. Flights arriving and departing O’Hare are now operating at a reduced rate, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

A fire broke out at the FAA control center in Aurora, Illinois, shortly after 5:40 a.m. local time, according to the Aurora Police Department. When the Aurora Fire Department responded, firefighters found a man with a self-inflicted wound in the basement of the facility.

The man may have been a disgruntled contractor, but he was not an employee of the FAA, said a spokesperson for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives.

Friday keynote speaker Amy O’Leary, a deputy editor at The New York Times, was stuck on the ground at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York. O’Leary eventually caught a flight that will get her to Chicago in time for “What’s Next for The NYT Innovation Report?” panel at 6 p.m. CT.

The “Getting Familiar with CartoDB” panel at  3:45 p.m. CT was cancelled because the speaker was not able to get to Chicago, ONA officials said.

Events that knock out part of the air traffic control system can be very disruptive to the airline industry, says Benet Wilson, an aviation journalist since 1992 and ONA board member.

“When Chicago goes down, it’s a ripple effect that goes across the world, not just in the United States,” Wilson said.

Case in point: Southwest Airlines has canceled all flights out of Midway and Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport until at least 7 p.m. CT.

Wilson said she thinks the fire will have a lasting effect throughout the weekend.

“You’re just going to have to wait it out,” Wilson said. “It is a big section of the country. It’s a mess.”

National Association of Black Journalists President Bob Butler was in line to board a 7:45 a.m. ET United Airlines flight from Reagan National Airport in the Washington, D.C., area to O’Hare when his flight was canceled.

“A lot of people are standing in line,” Butler said at the time. “I’ve been rebooked twice now,” including on a flight originally scheduled to depart 10:45 a.m. but had been delayed to 11:30 a.m. ET.

He eventually departed at about 2:30 p.m. ET.