Reconfiguring O'Hare: Officials see airfield changes as solution to regional delays

COVER STORY Reconfiguring O ’Hare By Jodi Richards, Associate Editor Officials see airfield changes as solution to regional delays Rosemarie Andolino CHICAGO — O’Hare International Airport’s central location...


Reconfiguring O ’Hare

By Jodi Richards, Associate Editor

Officials see airfield changes as solution to regional delays

Rosemarie Andolino
Rosemarie Andolino

CHICAGO — O’Hare International Airport’s central location has helped earn it the status of world’s busiest airport in terms of operations. “However,” says Rosemarie Andolino, O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP) executive director, “we also wear the hat of the nation’s most delayed airport.” The solution, say officials, is found in the $6.6 billion OMP, which includes realigning the airfield to reflect a more contemporary layout. And it’s all part of ORD’s $14.8 billion, 20-year master plan.

Also included in the master plan, says Andolino, a 13-year employee of the City of Chicago, is a capital improvement program estimated at $4.1 billion for ongoing maintenance and security and terminal enhancements. "With or without the other two elements, this would exist," she adds. The third element is the $2.6 billion World Gateway Program, first announced in 1999, which includes Terminal 4, Terminal 6, and the refurbishing of Terminal 2.

The summer of 2001 was the "worst summer of operations ever" for ORD, says Andolino. "Everybody was complaining all over the place because delays here were affecting the national aviation system tremendously. Congress then held hearings and mandated that the local leaders here come up with a solution to solve the delay problem at O’Hare, and they did. And that solution became the O’Hare Modernization Program."

Andolino explains that the main problem at ORD is the airfield configuration. "In inclement weather, the air traffic controllers are forced to remove one of the arrival runways, so we lose one third of our capacity. O’Hare was designed for military operations and when propeller planes were really sensitive to wind direction."

When all is said and done, O’Hare will have a total of eight runways, but reconfigured in such a way to allow three separate arrival streams in IFR or certain VFR conditions. Andolino points out that if rotated, the airfield layout is identical to the layout of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. "So it’s not a unique system," she says. "We’re not doing anything exotic. We’re doing something that’s a proven system; we know it would work. We’re just straightening out our airfield so we use it the best way possible."

The first phase of the project, construction of the new 9L/27R on the north end of the field, is expected to be completed by 2007. "This is the runway that will best assist in the delay reduction," says Andolino. "Because then we will have three independent arrival streams." The extension of 10L/28R and the relocation of 10C/28C are expected to be finished in 2009, and the remainder of the program is scheduled for completion in 2013.

"In order to realize a delay savings of 79 percent for the airport and 95 percent in bad weather, we have to realize the entire build-out," Andolino explains.

As for the airlines at ORD, Andolino says they are in favor of the OMP. “They can’t wait for this to happen,” she says. “The airlines will save $370 million per year in delay savings. If you total that up for ten years, it comes to close to $8 billion. Our program is $6.6 billion — it pays for itself with that alone. The cost of doing nothing at O’Hare is much higher. The benefits of this program are enormous; with 195,000 new jobs that will create $18 billion in new economic activity to this region’s economy. This nation needs jobs. This (OMP) provides jobs.”

In July 2003, according to Andolino, the airlines, in a majority in interest agreement, agreed to finance phase one of the OMP, which calls for $2.9 billion in financing. “That’s the confidence they have in the project,” she says. Under the agreement, 65 percent of the financing for Phase 1 will come from general airport revenue bonds, 23 percent from passenger facility charges, and 12 percent from federal Airport Improvement program funds.

Adds Andolino, “In addition, there was an agreement to save the airlines $100 million in existing O’Hare debt by refinancing and restructuring [it]. To date we’ve had two bond refinancings, and into 2004 we will have saved the airlines $45 million. So we’re well on our way to that $100 million in savings.”

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