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800 more Chicago flights canceled

| Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, 9:36 p.m.

CHICAGO — Incoming stormy weather and operational problems caused by a fire last week at a Chicago-area air traffic control facility forced the cancellation of more than 800 flights Thursday at Chicago airports.

More than 525 flights at O'Hare International Airport, one of the world's busiest, have been canceled, and delays are averaging 45 minutes, according to the city's department of aviation.

Nearly 300 flights were canceled at Chicago Midway International Airport, and some flight delays were averaging 40 minutes or more. Southwest Airlines, the largest airline serving Midway, canceled all flights after noon.

The National Weather Service said much of the Chicago area would get about an inch of rain from thunderstorms Thursday.

Brian Howard, 36, a field technician, was charged with a federal felony count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities for allegedly setting the fire at the Aurora, Ill., facility, prosecutors said. He is being held without bond.

The FAA said technicians were continuing around-the-clock work to restore telecommunications service at the Aurora facility.

Meanwhile, the head of the FAA will visit the damaged regional control center, the agency said.

Administrator Michael Huerta will visit the center and meet with Illinois' congressional delegation Friday. Huerta has said he hopes to return the facility to full service by Oct. 13.

Huerta has said the FAA is reviewing security at all of its facilities, as well as contingency plans for unexpected events like the fire.

Government and industry officials generally support a program called NextGen, which is intended to update all aspects of flights to boost safety and efficiency, but its costs have risen, funding has been disputed in Congress, and airlines have been slow to adopt the new equipment until the benefits become more obvious.

Huerta says NextGen, budgeted at about $1 billion a year, will reduce flight disruptions by monitoring planes more closely through satellite technology rather than ground-based radar and communicating with them using radio over the Internet.

Watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office and the Transportation Department's inspector general's office warned that NextGen is costing more than anticipated and taking longer to implement than expected, while FAA maintains strides are being made.

A 2012 GAO study found half of 30 NextGen projects experienced delays, and 11 of them cost a combined $4.2 billion more than originally estimated. The 11 projects, some of which began in the late 1990s, were originally projected to cost a combined $7 billion and had grown to nearly $11.2 billion, according to GAO.

All told, the FAA plans to spend $4.5 billion on the system by 2035, an increase of $400 million from original estimates, according to the inspector general.

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