CHICAGO — The Federal Aviation Administration lifted all restrictions on air travel about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday that previously grounded flights at Chicago’s O’Hare International and Midway airports.

For a short time Tuesday morning, all flights at both airports — incoming and outgoing — were grounded, according to the FAA. Midway was first to clear restrictions on incoming and outgoing flights about 8 a.m., and later O’Hare’s restrictions applied only to incoming flights. But the hourslong “ground stoppage,” or halting of flights, at O’Hare caused lengthy delays for travelers.

“Typically, dense fog causes a suspension or serious slowing down of the arrival stream for safety reasons. If it’s too dense to maneuver safely around the airfield, departures might also be suspended,” Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the FAA, wrote in an email.

Visibility at Midway improved to a mile about 8 a.m., while it remained a quarter-mile at O’Hare at the same time, said Casey Sullivan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“The fog is dissipating from the south,” Sullivan said, explaining why air travel was able to resume earlier at Midway than O’Hare. “The fog is just going to gradually lift across the area during mid- to late-morning hours.”

Still, the lengthy ground stoppage for incoming flights at O’Hare meant not all departing flights left on time and many travelers missed connecting flights, leading to a chain reaction of air travel delays during a traditionally peak period for travel.

By 9 a.m., some evidence of that chain reaction already was being felt at O’Hare, according to the FAA. The agency noted delays were stacking up, resulting in “gate hold” and taxi delays of “16 minutes and 30 minutes in length and increasing,” according to its alert for O’Hare.

In O’Hare’s United terminal, it was difficult to hear some announcements over the Christmas music. As airport speakers filled the terminal with the controversial winter tune “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” an announcement informed passengers on one flight of “another gate change.”

At the gate for a delayed flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul, employees brought out a snack cart. Mark Rakocy took a bag of Baked Ruffles and a granola bar. His layover from Los Angeles to Columbus, Ohio, did not have a clear end in sight, and he was growing worried about making it to his family in time for Christmas. His original connection was supposed to leave at 8 a.m., and around 9:30, he was No. 10 of 15 people on standby for a flight departing a little before 10:20.

That’s despite using an app to sign up for the standby list, which appeared faster than waiting in line. Because the original flight was canceled, not just delayed, it seemed like everyone was trying to do the same thing, he said.

“I don’t even know if I’m gonna get on this,” Rakocy said. “It looks like a very small plane.” He was told there “might be” other flights later, but so far he knew of only one other potential option around 6 p.m.

“That’s basically the whole day gone,” Rakocy said.

As of 9:30 a.m., 462 flights were delayed at O’Hare, while at Midway, 29 flights were delayed. O’Hare reported 53 cancellations and Midway had 71, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

The FAA suggests travelers check directly with their airline to determine if a flight has been delayed, and it has a page on its website that provides links to all major airlines. Delays on many airlines at O’Hare were an average of 30 minutes, the city’s Aviation Department noted.

Overnight, “dense, freezing fog” developed throughout the city and its surrounding suburbs, leading to travel difficulties in the air and on the ground. About 6:30 a.m., visibility at both Chicago airports was less than a quarter-mile, according to meteorologist Mark Ratzer.

Seats were scarce at many gates, with some travelers sleeping on the floor or while sitting upright. Others weren’t sure how they were going to kill time waiting during the mounting delays, while those on arriving flights were waiting on luggage. One family, delayed at O’Hare en route from Hawaii to Ohio, estimated their total travel time would be 19 hours, if delay projections held.

Sisters Ashley Francis, 30, and Morgan Kaiser, 23, along with Francis’ 17-month-old son, arrived at O’Hare from Honolulu, Hawaii, to find out their 8:30 a.m. United Airlines connection to Dayton, Ohio, was delayed by close to three hours.

Francis now lives in Hawaii, but Kaiser and others in their family are still in Ohio. After Kaiser went to spend time on the island with her sister, the three were on their way home for Christmas. Kaiser joked she wished she could be like her nephew, who was sound asleep in a green stroller. It was not his first time flying, and he spent part of the first leg of their trip the same way, Francis said.

“The last half he slept, the first half he did not,” Francis said.

Their journey started about 5 a.m. Hawaii time, and Francis estimated the trip home for Christmas would take at least 19 hours. With nothing to do but wait, Francis said they were “good, just tired.” It seemed like their flight’s new gate had been switching every 30 minutes, but until it was closer to boarding, she said they were staying put.

Ralph Korson’s flight back to his hometown of Traverse City, Mich., after visiting friends was canceled, but he said he was able to get put on an 11:50 a.m. flight. Minutes before 8 a.m., he wasn’t sure how he was going to kill the time. “Well, it’s boring,” Korson said, figuring he’d sit somewhere, “get a magazine or something.”

Employees behind an American Airlines gate desk tried to help delayed travelers make alternate plans. For Pamela Weinzapfel, a 40-minute layover at O’Hare nearly tripled, and her new flight will take her to Louisville, Ky., rather than her hometown of Evansville, Ind.

Her sisters’ drive to pick her up from the airport will be about two hours longer too, she said.

“I called them and they’re like, ‘Yeah, whatever we’ll be there,’” said Weinzapfel, 30.

It will be her first time back since moving to Washington, D.C., in June. She said because she had a basic economy ticket, she was limited to flights with the same airlines, but the American Airlines staff who helped her were “super nice, super friendly.”

The incoming flight stoppage at O’Hare was affecting those waiting for their bags, as well as those waiting for the airplane they were meant to depart on. Nancy Hassan and Wessam Abdeleziz waited near the baggage claim with their sons, ages 7 years and 6 months, in hopes the fog advisory would lift so they could pick up their car 4 miles away and drive home to Kalamazoo, Mich.

The baby, wearing a blue onesie patterned with snowmen and penguins, crawled across a zebra-print blanket while his mother watched over him. The family celebrated their Christmas early with a vacation in Las Vegas, where the older boy enjoyed zip lining.

“They have lot of fun activities for kids,” Hassan said.

After making it partway to their final destination, the family was ready to get on with their travels. Hassan said they usually fly out of Chicago or Detroit, depending on the price of tickets.

But the family may still be in for delays even once they pick up their vehicle.

The dense fog also could affect road travel, with decreased visibility for motorists. The AAA expects more travelers on the road this holiday season nationwide than ever before. The figure represents a 3.9% increase from motorists last year, and AAA said travel will be at its peak Thursday.

“AAA forecasts that 104 million Americans will travel by car — the most on record — for a year-end holiday,” according to Jeanette Casselano, an AAA spokeswoman.

Molly Hart, another AAA spokeswoman, said ever-busier roads and lines at airports shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to seasoned travelers.

“Travelers should be getting used to crowded highways and airports, as this marks the eighth straight year of new record-high travel volumes for the year-end holidays.”

 

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