U.S. Travel: Chicago Flight Control Fire Cost $123 Million in Lost Business

The U.S. Travel Association released figures today estimating that the nearly 3,900 flight cancellations in the four days following a fire at an air traffic control facility in the Chicago area cost nearly $123 million in passengers' lost economic activity.

"This incident clearly demonstrates the vital importance of the air travel sector to the American economy," U.S. Travel President and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement. "We should not be in a position where a singular event such as this can cripple air travel and disrupt the plans of thousands of travelers. If policymakers fail to treat this as a wake-up call, and continue to delay significant investments in our fragile aviation infrastructure, we can count on some similar variant of this incident happening again."

Official reports revealed the damage was caused by an early morning fire set by an employee on September 27 in an Aurora, Ill. air traffic control facility. The economic impact of the fire could ultimately be much greater, as the calculations exclude the currently unknown number of delayed flights and the prolonged impact beyond those first six days; some estimates initially held that the region would operate at only 60 percent of normal flight capacity through much of October.

RELATED: Chicago FAA Fire Update—Normal Service to Resume October 13

Economists at the U.S. Travel Association have calculated that the cancellation of one U.S. domestic flight costs $31,600 in passengers' direct economic activity. The direct-impact figure includes the costs of canceled trips, passenger time lost, missed connections and missed travel activities. The estimates are based on a combination of airline traffic and on-time data; air traveler behavior and characteristics data recently collected through U.S. Travel surveys; the monthly TravelsAmerica survey conducted by research firm TNS; and U.S. Travel's proprietary economic models.

The economic impact estimate was formulated using only the known number of flight cancellations in the first four days following the incident. The number only accounts for passengers on those flights and the spending they would otherwise inject into the economy; because of discrepancies in how each carrier tabulates its costs, there is no industry-wide data available for the airline sector.

"These numbers would have been significantly higher if this happened around Thanksgiving or Christmas or other high-volume air travel holidays," said Dow. "I hope we can work with our policy leaders to modernize the system so that we won't have to see just how badly an event like this could cripple the system during a major travel period."