Travel slowly returning to normal after Chicago air traffic control center fire

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It'll take about two more weeks to fully reopen a Chicago-area control center where a deliberately set fire brought air travel at the city's two international airports to a standstill last week, the Federal Aviation Administration says.

Authorities say a contract employee started a fire at the regional control center in suburban Aurora and then attempted to take his own life, The Associated Press reports. More than 2,000 flights were canceled at O'Hare and Midway airports, which disrupted travel nationwide.

Effects of the fire quickly made their way to Minnesota Friday. Chicago is the number one destination from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and by early afternoon, 22 flights to Midway or O'Hare were canceled, reports said.

Things improved at MSP over the weekend. About nine flights were canceled Saturday and six on Sunday, the Star Tribune says. Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission in the Twin Cities, told the newspaper that more than 4,000 people flying out of MSP were affected by flight cancellations – each flight would have carried between 110 and 120 people.

According to FlightAware.com, as of 9 a.m. Monday, two Minneapolis flights bound for Chicago had been delayed and two had already been canceled for the day.

About 600 flights were canceled at Chicago's two airports Sunday, with many more delayed about a half-hour, The AP says. More improvements are expected Monday as air traffic controllers at other facilities in the Midwest, including in Farmington, Minnesota, are picking up the slack left after the fire at the Aurora center, the FAA said.

The Aurora center isn't expected to be fully operational until Oct. 13, the FAA said Sunday.

“This is one of the most challenging situations that air traffic controllers and other FAA employees have faced since 9/11,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi said in a news release.

NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert commended the air traffic controllers in the release, saying, "The level of resourcefulness and ingenuity that has been demonstrated over the past three days is truly astounding. Controllers and other FAA safety professionals will continue to implement outside-the-box thinking to get the system functioning well while Chicago Center repairs are made.”

MPR News notes the question now is how a contract employee was able to get into a position to destroy an air traffic control system.

“The fact that one person can bring down thousands of flights with a can of gasoline is astounding,” DePaul University transportation professor Joe Schweiterman told CBS Chicago.

Congressman Dan Lipinski, a Chicago-area Democrat, says this incident "indicates there's a problem in our system and we need to take a careful look at this," CBS Chicago says.

The FAA said it will review its security practices and how it deals with unexpected incidents at air traffic control facilities. Michael Huerta of the FAA told The Associated Press he won't hesitate to make changes if they're needed.

The FAA has heightened security at all of its facilities in wake of Friday's incident.

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