City Claims Overstated on O'Hare Expansion

Chicago has promised that its $14.7 billion plan virtually will eliminate late and canceled flights during bad weather.

"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.

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