The Federal Aviation Administration said Saturday that it "may consider a phased approach" next year to possibly ending restrictions on the number of planes permitted to land at O'Hare International Airport, which has the worst on-time performance of any airport in the U.S.
But the agency did not issue a guarantee or a timetable. It said the decision will be based on an FAA assessment of whether O'Hare could smoothly handle the extra flights that airlines would be free to schedule.
In Saturday editions, the Tribune quoted the FAA's chief operating officer as saying the hourly flight caps would not be lifted for the scheduled November 2008 opening of the first new O'Hare runway in more than 30 years. Henry Krakowski, the FAA official, cited concerns about flight delays and cancellations increasing. He said significant improvements in O'Hare's flight capacity were contingent on completion of other runways in Chicago's $15 billion airport expansion project.
"No. No. The FAA is not going to lift the caps" when the new runway opens, Krakowski told the Tribune on Friday. "What we think the new runway is going to buy us, more than anything, is a reduction of delay."
Chicago and the major airlines want the flight limits, in effect since 2004, eliminated next November.
Mayor Richard Daley said Saturday he would seek a meeting with FAA officials "because it's quite early for them to make a decision like that."
"They put a cap on because we didn't have the runways and now we're putting the runways in," Daley said.
The Daley administration initially said the airport project would be finished in 2013, but it is behind schedule. Lacking airline agreements and still fighting expansion opponents in court, the city has not set a date for the project's completion. The extension of flight caps would severely complicate Chicago's effort to pay for the expansion, which is at least $400 million over budget.
Krakowski did not say that the flight caps would remain in effect permanently, but he listed his concerns about the airlines pumping more flights into O'Hare during the near- and- mid-terms.
"Another thing is that with an airport under construction you have a lot of closed taxiways, you have other runways that you take out of commission while you're building pieces and all that," Krakowski said.
"So one of the reasons we don't think we can really raise a lot of capacity is the airport is going to be under significant construction for quite a few years," he said.
When the caps were imposed in 2004, O'Hare led the nation in flight delays. Since then, the percentage of on-time flights has improved somewhat.
Through the first nine months of this year, O'Hare ranked last in on-time departure performance among the nation's 32 busiest airports. It was No. 28 for on-time arrivals in the same period.
But Krakowski said he is confident that the O'Hare expansion, if fully built, will eventually solve Chicago's airport problems.
"I think Chicago did it right," he said. "You know how painful the delays were getting for the passengers. The airport was becoming an embarrassment for the city."