Thousands of US air passengers hit by suicide-fire incident

Thousands of air passengers in the US on Sunday continued to suffer from the effects of an employee's alleged sabotage of the Illinois air traffic control hub that has resulted in the cancellation of 780 flights during the weekend.

PTI| Last Updated: Sep 29, 2014, 01:48 AM IST

Chicago: Thousands of air passengers in the US on Sunday continued to suffer from the effects of an employee's alleged sabotage of the Illinois air traffic control hub that has resulted in the cancellation of 780 flights during the weekend.

Over 660 flights scheduled to either take off or land at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport were canceled yesterday, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Another 120 flights were canceled at the city's Midway Airport.

The disruption stems from a Friday morning fire at the Federal Aviation Administration Chicago En Route Center in nearby Aurora, a critical air traffic control centre.

Police say that blaze was set intentionally by Brian Howard, a 36-year-old contract employee at the facility, before he apparently attempted to kill himself.

An FBI affidavit says that a first responder saw some feet sticking out from under a table and found Howard "in the process of actively slicing his throat with another knife."

He told paramedics to "leave me alone," CNN quoted the affidavit as saying.

He survived and was taken to a hospital.

He has been charged with one count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, a felony that could land him a 20-year prison sentence. No court date has been set.

According to the FBI, Howard, had worked at the center for eight years but was facing a transfer to Hawaii.

Howard apparently started the fire in the control center's basement, causing the facility that controls flights in several Midwest states to evacuate and shut down.

O'Hare, one of the busiest airports in the world, is a main hub for United Airlines and other major carriers, with flights headed to international destinations.

When controllers stop flights scheduled to there, it has the potential to trigger a line of falling air-traffic dominoes that will ruin travel plans for countless would-be passengers.

By Friday evening, more than 2,000 flights had been canceled in and out of Chicago's two airports.

The ripple effect caused disruptions at airports across the nation. Southwest Airlines suspended all fights Friday not only in Chicago, but at Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport as well. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport had 70 cancellations and there were 56 at New York's LaGuardia Airport.

Meanwhile, aviation authorities said a clean-up crew was brought in yesterday "to begin drying out water-damaged equipment" in the telecommunications room where Howard set the fire, as well as to clean and sanitise the area.

"The Federal Aviation Administration is using all the tools at its disposal to safely restore as much service as quickly as possible," an official said.