Sep. 25--The long drought at O'Hare International Airport--almost 35 years without new runways--appears on the verge of ending with a nod this week from the Federal Aviation Administration.
But Chicago's plan to reconfigure O'Hare, the most complex and expensive airport expansion project in U.S. history, is layered with uncertainties. A Tribune analysis of thousands of pages of airport and FAA documents raises questions about how many years of relief the expanded airport will provide before debilitating delays return, whether a huge jump in the number of planes taxiing across runways will jeopardize safety and what the project's ultimate cost will be.
Chicago has promised that its $14.7 billion plan virtually will eliminate late and canceled flights during bad weather. Initially, FAA officials did not analyze the calculations underlying those rosy predictions. When they did, at the Tribune's request, the agency found that Chicago's claims were overstated.
FAA documents also warn that major flight delays could return just five years after the city finishes reconfiguring the runways.
Nevertheless, the FAA is expected to approve this week the most ambitious part of the city's expansion, a plan to untangle O'Hare's intersecting runways with a network of parallel ones. The FAA's decision will allow Chicago to start razing homes and businesses in Elk Grove Village and Bensenville immediately and to dig up a religious cemetery established near fruit orchards 55 years before the Wright brothers' first powered flight.
A green light from the FAA would come before the federal government finishes assessing, as required by law, whether the benefits of the expansion exceed its huge costs. That analysis will determine whether the project will receive any federal funding.
"I've been concerned all along that there is too much closeness between the city and the FAA and that somebody at the FAA has taken out a rubberstamp and said, 'OK, go ahead and do it. Assess all this money on the people who come to the airport. Don't worry about it,'" said Kenneth Mead, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
City officials plan to pay for the project in part with federal airport grants and money from ticket taxes. In addition, the city will issue airport bonds, which will be repaid with O'Hare revenues, including fees airlines pay to land planes and lease gates, and a cut of what vendors charge for parking, rental cars and food. Some of those costs will trickle down to travelers, who are likely to see higher ticket prices.
It's not clear exactly what the final price tag will be for the city's plan. The bulk of Chicago's airport-expansion budget hinges on educated guesses about how much O'Hare will receive from the federal government, what interest rates will be years from now when financing is needed for various parts of the project and what the financially shaky airline industry will be willing to pay in increased airport fees.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill will have a key role in deciding how much federal funding they can grant the O'Hare project without starving other airports. City officials said the project deserves $2 billion in ticket taxes and grants because delays at O'Hare cascade across the country and can cripple the nation's air system.
"I want to break ground because time costs money to us building the runways and to our passengers," said Rosemarie Andolino, executive director of the O'Hare Modernization Program. "What kind of value can you place on someone's time when you miss your son's Little League game because you are sitting in a plane on a runway waiting to take off? That's the MasterCard commercial. Time is priceless. That's why we need to modernize O'Hare."
The city's $14.7 billion cost estimate for the expansion does not include interest the airport will have to pay on borrowed money. When asked to estimate those costs so the Tribune could determine the project's total price tag, Andolino declined to do so.
"That's not how we've broken it out," she said.
Because the city owns the airport but not the major roads and highways around it, transportation improvements to get people in and out of O'Hare also aren't included in the price tag. Those include a proposed highway extension connecting the western suburbs to O'Hare, a proposed Metra route to O'Hare and an extension of the CTA Blue Line to the western side of the expanded airport. The Illinois Department of Transportation estimates that these projects together would cost more than $3 billion.
The city's ambitious plans come at a time when three of the airport's four busiest airlines, including locally based United Airlines, are in bankruptcy proceedings; oil and construction prices are soaring; and some major airports are rolling back expansion plans.
The $14.7 billion estimate includes the cost of building three new terminals, but city officials haven't lined up financing for any of them. Andolino said these plans give the city flexibility to add terminals when needed. But building a new terminal can take years, and that lag time can cause bottlenecks as airlines try to pack planes into too few gates.
City officials have not arranged financing for other parts of the expansion, even some of the runways. That's because planners have broken the massive project into pieces. That approach raises the specter that the full airfield, needed to deliver all the promised benefits, might never be built.
Andolino said airlines and passengers will notice improvements even if the city completes nothing more than the first piece, which will build one new runway and extend two others. But, she said, she's confident the entire airfield will be reconfigured.
Buoyed by strong support from the Chicago business community, Mayor Richard Daley's administration repeatedly has rejected calls from the airlines and air-traffic controllers to build the project differently and at a lower cost.
"The city says we are partners in all this, but we have no input," said Bill Hood, managing director of corporate affairs in Chicago at American Airlines.
American, United and the air-traffic controllers support expanding O'Hare but prefer to leave much of the existing airfield intact, adding just one new runway and extending another. This would allow 100 landings and 100 takeoffs hourly in bad weather, they say, far more than can be done currently.
Officials said the city's plan would accomplish the same result. That plan, however, would tear up most of the airfield, removing three runways, building four new ones and extending two others. Following the current trend of airport development, the city plan envisions parallel runways.
Under the city's proposal, planes would taxi across runways more than 2,100 times per day, increasing the risk of collisions caused by miscommunication. Today, planes typically cross O'Hare runways about 100 times daily, air-traffic controllers and the FAA's operations manager at O'Hare said.
Some planes would taxi for as much as 5 miles--more than double today's taxiing distance--adding time and fuel costs.
"They will regret that they built it this way," said Craig Burzych, president of the O'Hare Tower National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Air-traffic controllers, who work shoulder-to-shoulder in one tower today, would be split up between two towers on different sides of the airport.
Pilots taxiing to terminals after landing on the new runways at the fringes of the expanded airport would be required to switch radio frequencies as many as five times before arriving at their gate. A missed radio call could lead to a plane going astray, creating an accident risk. Today, one radio channel is used in most cases.
City officials said the runway layout is safe, and the FAA agrees, noting that controllers will slow down takeoffs and landings to prevent mishaps.
But Chicago's predictions of reduced delays don't take this into account.
City officials said the average delay per plane will shrink to six minutes, compared with 15 minutes on the existing airfield. Delays at the reconfigured O'Hare are based on computer simulations in which planes take off, land and taxi to gates in perfectly spaced intervals, while the delay figure for the existing airport reflects actual performance.
The cornerstone of the city's runway plan, which Daley first trumpeted in 2001, was to cut delays in bad weather by 95 percent and delays overall by 79 percent while still increasing the number of flights. When the Tribune asked the FAA to test this promise using its own computer models, the agency came up with delay reductions of 68 percent for bad weather and 66 percent overall. FAA officials said the city's calculation failed to factor in the increased flights.
The FAA projects that increased demand for air travel at O'Hare could reach 1.4 million annual flights, up from 974,000 today. That increased traffic would spark a return to the kinds of lengthy delays that the massive expansion is trying to fix just five years after the runways are complete, according to FAA documents.
"In the world of airport development, there is no denying that if demand increases, eventually you find yourself back where you started," said Barry Cooper, a top FAA official who is reviewing the city's expansion plan. "It's a matter of investing in how many years of better performance you are looking to get."
By Jon Hilkevitch and Patricia Callahan
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