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Chicago airports resume flights after smoke causes nationwide delays

Ground halt lifted at Chicago airports but backlog remains
Smoke from a broken fan closed a key FAA office, forcing an hours-long ground halt at Chicago airports

Controllers at a Federal Aviation Administration radar center near Chicago were working Tuesday evening to clear a backlog of more than 1,000 flights that were delayed an average of three hours after a faulty fan in a women’s bathroom whirled smoke into the center’s control room and prompted an evacuation.

Though firefighters left the scene and lifted the evacuation in about an hour, the FAA had to wait hours more for the smell of smoke to fade before resuming operations.

“To eliminate any distractions to controllers, the smoke and smells need to be completely cleared out,” FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said., which tracks airline activity nationwide, reported nearly 1,000 delays involving flights to and from O'Hare International Airport and an additional 200 delays into and out of Midway International Airport. O’Hare is one of the largest hubs for American Airlines and United Airlines. The airlines canceled more than 200 flights combined on Tuesday, with poor weather in Dallas contributing to issues for American Airlines.

The FAA kept a ground stop in place for about four hours, barring departures and arrivals at Chicago-area airports, after a 911 call about the smoke in the Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in the suburb of Elgin.

The facility helps guide planes on takeoffs and landings, duties that were immediately transferred to another FAA office near Chicago for a limited number of flights. 

Elgin Fire Capt. Robb Cagann told The Times that a motor that controls bathroom fans appears to have “seized up and overheated” to the point that it burned off the motor's labels and melted insulation on its wires.

The heat did not spark a fire. But the malfunction sent smoke throughout the heating and air conditioning system. The smoke was thick enough that firefighters had to wear their oxygen masks to enter the area, Cagann said. Like the smell of a burned popcorn in a kitchen, the scent of the smoke lingers, he said.

Cagann said such electrical fires are “fairly common,” but that it was unfortunate that this one had such widespread effects.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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