O'Hare Expansion in Holding Pattern

The first new O'Hare runway in the eight-runway configuration will not open until at least 2008, a full year later than the city's original schedule.


May 17--With runway construction at O'Hare International Airport falling behind schedule and hikes in oil prices and inflation driving up costs, officials are questioning the timetable and even the viability of the $15 billion airport expansion project.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it doesn't know when the city will begin work on two runways. And Chicago aviation officials this spring announced a one-year delay in building another runway on the north end of the airport.

The major airlines are voicing support for some variant of the ambitious parallel-runway configuration that Mayor Richard Daley unveiled in 2001. But the carriers acknowledge they are in no better position today than they were then to help pay for Chicago's O'Hare overhaul.

"In light of the financial crisis the industry finds itself in, we and the city must be ever vigilant so that whatever improvements are made are cost-efficient and effective," said American Airlines spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan.

United Airlines is committed only to the first phase of the project, said Ajay Singh, the airline's vice president of corporate real estate.

No airline has signed up to help finance the second wave of new runways and passenger terminals, which is when the city says major reductions in flight delays would occur. Last year, O'Hare had the most delays of any major U.S. airport.

"Nobody expects United or American to pump huge investments into their O'Hare hubs in the next few years. And the city is opting for a more go-slow approach to keep tight reins on the costs," said Joseph Schwieterman, an aviation expert at DePaul University.

"The sense of urgency about the first phase appears to be diminishing," Schwieterman said.

O'Hare expansion chief Rosemarie Andolino disagreed, saying the city is very aggressive in moving forward.

"Our goal is to build the project as fast as we can so the benefits of reducing delays and increasing capacity can be realized by the traveling public and the airlines," said Andolino, executive director of the O'Hare Modernization Program.

"Time always works against you because of escalation in costs. If I don't have to pay more for something, why should I?"

That's what the airlines are asking.

Despite its crisscrossing runways, the existing airport is working well for United and American, which operate more than 85 percent of O'Hare flights. The nation's two largest carriers have even stopped grousing about government-imposed O'Hare flight caps because they provide stability in an industry mired in turmoil.

Making O'Hare operate more efficiently--the cornerstone of Daley's plan--is already happening. The FAA says flight delays are down 30 percent since the caps were imposed, saving the airlines millions of dollars in fuel and labor costs.

The big carriers are cutting back on O'Hare flights in a strategy to boost ticket prices. They can do so because the flight caps mean there's no room for a discount airline like JetBlue Airways to compete in the Chicago market.

"The longer we don't have to pay for something, the better. However long it takes, it takes," one airline official said about O'Hare expansion.

Amid signals that the scope of O'Hare expansion may be changing, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta commissioned its fifth runway on Tuesday. At a cost of only $1.3 billion, the new runway is expected to reduce departure delays by 50 percent at Hartsfield, which has surpassed O'Hare as the world's busiest airport.

Meanwhile, a new FAA analysis released Tuesday verifies that air-traffic controllers can adequately handle as many as 279 takeoffs and landings an hour at a modernized O'Hare, said Kevin Markwell, an FAA manager who works on planning the procedures of the future airport.

Yet before the flight caps were introduced in 2004, O'Hare controllers often directed as many as 240 flights an hour.

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