Four days after a fire knocked a critical air-traffic facility in Aurora offline, O’Hare International Airport on Tuesday edged past the busiest U.S. airport in terms of total flights, according to federal aviation data.
The data, obtained by the Tribune on Wednesday, provides the strongest sign yet that airline flights in Chicago have bounced back to almost normal levels after last Friday’s act of sabotage that authorities said was carried out by a disgruntled contract employee at the air route traffic control center in Aurora.
O’Hare handled a total of 2,472 takeoffs and landings Tuesday, compared with 2,441 total operations at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, according to the FAA’s air-traffic control daily report.
O’Hare reached that flight volume despite the cancellation of almost 200 flights that day, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
In contrast, the airlines canceled fewer than 10 flights at Atlanta on Tuesday, according to flightstats.com, a flight-tracking company. It means O’Hare would have recorded a much bigger margin over the Georgia airport were it not for the airlines proactively canceling so many O’Hare flights out of caution not to overtax the still fragile air-traffic system.
Because of Friday’s fire in Aurora, thousands of flights were canceled in Chicago and nationwide and tens of thousands were delayed in subsequent days, the airlines reported.
More than 190 flights were canceled Wednesday at O’Hare, as of midafternoon, while Midway Airport reported a handful of cancellations, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Traffic flow at both airports was in the high 80 percent range Wednesday, according to the FAA.
O’Hare had the title of “world’s busiest airport” from 1961 through 1997 — in both total flights and total passengers. O’Hare lost the designation to Atlanta for the first time in both categories in 2005, records show. In 2013, Atlanta remained the No. 1 airport in the U.S. for the total number of planes and passengers accommodated.
But Chicago officials said last week that, based on 2014 data through August, O’Hare is on pace to regain the top spot this year in terms of total flights, but not passenger volumes.
After Friday’s fire at the Aurora facility, the FAA said, technicians initially worked around the clock to reconnect radios and radars and switch transmissions to other facilities in the air-traffic system.
Longer-term repairs are underway and thus far include the laying of 10 miles of new cable, the FAA said Wednesday.
Prosecutors allege Brian Howard, 36, of Naperville, set the equipment on fire and, using knives, slashed cables and attempted to commit suicide in an apparent rage after being told by supervisors he was being transferred to Hawaii. He faces federal charges.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta earlier this week agreed to congressional demands that the agency carry out a 30-day investigation into how the loss of a single radar station outside Chicago brought the entire commercial aviation system to its knees.
Part of the review is expected to recommend that more redundancies be built into the system to thwart sabotage, perhaps along the lines of deploying multiple back-up systems like the U.S. Department of Defense has done throughout its various air wings, experts said.
The FAA said it has already increased security at its facilities. But members of Congress have called for an independent investigation into what should be done to more closely monitor government contractors, which increasingly are being relied on to provide equipment and service it, officials said.