O'Hare to Tow Airliners to Runways?

Jet airliners at O'Hare International Airport may one day save a small fortune in fuel costs - and reduce CO2 emissions - by being towed to and from runways, rather than idling their engines and taxying.

That's the environment-friendly scenario being pushed by Virgin Atlantic chairman Richard Branson, who announced Monday his airline is resuming daily O'Hare flights to and from London beginning in April.

The media and transportation mogul said commercial jets could save up to 3 tons of fuel each trip if tractors that already pull planes a short distance from terminals haul them further to holding areas where the planes could warm up their engines shortly before takeoff; the vehicles also would tow planes back to terminals after landings. Branson said London's Gatwick airport will start testing the idea within weeks.

"It's just something which people should have thought of before," Branson said at a Chicago appearance to announce the new Chicago flights. "The airline industry costs themselves hundreds and hundreds of millions by not doing it. The environment's been damaged."

Branson estimated that airports employing a towing system could significantly reduce local CO2 emissions. The clean-air benefits would be enhanced if towing vehicles run on ethanol or other alternative fuels, Branson added.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who himself has pushed "green" initiatives in his metropolis, said Branson's proposal for O'Hare is worth considering. His aviation commissioner, Nuria Fernandez, cautioned that the city would need to study the idea and consult with the Federal Aviation Administration.

"I first have to understand what it does from an operations perspective," she told reporters. "We are the busiest airport in the world."

Branson - a knighted British entrepreneur who started several companies under the Virgin brand - has pledged to spend billions of dollars on developing alternative fuels to offset global warming.

His Virgin airlines previously operated daily service from O'Hare, but discontinued it following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Branson said. Startup airfare for the new, amenity-laced flights would range from $369 round-trip before taxes and fees to $3,250 for high-end business class, Virgin Atlantic representatives said.

Also Monday, Branson was pressed about the prospects of his Virgin Megastore on Michigan Avenue, which sells CDs and DVDs, in an age of Internet music downloads. Branson said the Virgin chain has diversified in part by selling mobile phones, but he conceded Web-based music retailers may put record stores out of business.

"Nothing's forever in life," Branson said. "As Virgin, as a company, we evolve. If one thing doesn't work out, we'll go to something that does work out."

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