O'Hare Flight Patterns Changing to Reduce Risk of Collisions

May 03--Close calls in the sky near U.S. airports are prompting new procedures at O'Hare International Airport, but the safety efforts carry downsides for both air travelers and residents living under flight paths, aviation officials said Friday.

Air-traffic changes implemented April 15 to reduce the risk of mid-air collisions at O'Hare mean more jet noise for suburbs immediately west and southwest of the airport, as well as Chicago neighborhoods east of O'Hare, according to flight information that Chicago and the Federal Aviation Administration presented to the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission.

In addition, a switch to using only two departure runways instead of three under the new FAA rules is reducing O'Hare's flight capacity and could lead to delays during busy travel hours, officials said.

The new air-traffic operations that began last month eliminate the use of converging runways during O'Hare's busiest hours. The decision was based on incidents at busy hub airports around the country in which departing planes flew too close to arriving planes that had executed unplanned flight go-arounds over the airports before making second attempts to land, Barry Cooper, FAA regional administrator, told the noise commission.

The move to limit converging runway operations comes roughly six months after air-traffic procedures were revamped at O'Hare to accommodate a new east-west parallel-runway configuration.

The new east-west flow of airplanes since Oct.17 has led to more jet noise -- and a huge jump in noise complaints from weary residents -- both east and west of those parallel runways.

Noise complaints from homeowners soared in March, to 11,145 complaints compared to 7,472 complaints in February, according to new data released Friday by the Chicago Department of Aviation..

City officials noted that 60 percent of the March complaints came from just 12 addresses.

The city received an all-time record of 29,493 noise complaints in 2013. The total for the first three months of this year is 24,938, officials said.

Several Chicago-area residents testified at Friday's noise commission meeting about what they described as intolerable levels of jet noise since the new runway patterns began.

Kinga Biernat, who has lived near O'Hare for 10 years and is resigned to some airplane noise, said her family would be better off living right at the airport than in their home directly under new flight path on Hillside Drive in Bensenville. She said the noise now starts at 4 a.m. each day and continues until at least 10 p.m.

She said her 15-year-old daughter cannot sleep at night and can't keep awake during school.

"It has changed our life into hell. Please tell me what we did -- the honest, simple people -- to deserve that," Biernat said, receiving no response from commission members.

Sharon Hirth, a 27-year resident of Schiller Park, brought a video that she shot in her back yard on Easter Sunday, but none of the commission members asked to see it. The video showed planes passing low over Hirth's garage every two to three minutes.

"This was our dream house and now it's a disaster,'' said Hirth, 56. "We can't sit outside any more, my grandson won't be able to swim in the pool because of the fumes from planes.''

She and others demanded that Chicago purchase their homes and then condemn them.

"Who else is going to buy my house now?" Hirth asked and then answered. "Nobody."

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, whose congressional district includes O'Hare, on Friday repeated his call for the Emanuel administration to help find solutions. He said he is frustrated that City Hall hasn't acted.

"If we are saving hundreds of millions of dollars for the airlines by building new runways, some of that money can be used to take the strain off of surrounding communities,'' said Quigley, a Democrat.

Under the flight pattern changes, areas directly west, southwest and east of O'Hare are being exposed to up to several hundred additional flights overhead between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily, according to city flight data presented to the noise commission.

April noise data is expected to show that communities northwest and northeast of the airport are getting some relief under the FAA changes.

The new flight pattern changes are not in effect during O'Hare's "fly quiet" hours, which are 10 p.m to 7 a.m. nightly, because fewer flights are scheduled and if converging runways are in use, air-traffic controllers can more easily sequence planes to avoid potential conflicts in the skies above O'Hare, officials said.

The modifications were recommended last year for 15 airports, including O'Hare, by the National Transportation Safety Board after five incidents in which planes "came within hazardous proximity," the NTSB said. None of the incidents was at O'Hare, officials said. Three occurred at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, with one at Kennedy International Airport in New York and the other at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in North Carolina.

The FAA is limiting the use of certain arrival and departure runway combinations in order to eliminate the risk of close calls or even mid-air crashes during go-around situations, Cooper said. Other runway combinations will be used more often.

For example, O'Hare runway 32 Left, which points toward the northwest suburbs, is no longer being used for departures when runway 27 Right, which faces west, is used for landings, between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., the FAA said. The change eliminates intersecting flight paths.

Two other runways -- 28 Right, which points toward the western suburbs, and 22 Left, which is on a southwest heading -- will take the departures formerly handled by 32 Left, officials said.

Runway 4 Left, which faces northeast, also is not being used for departures when arrivals are occurring on 27 Right, to avoid a possible conflict, the FAA said. Departures formerly on 4 Left are being switched to two eastbound runways, 9 Right and 10 Left.

The new procedures are expected to remain in place for three to six months while the FAA evaluates other options that could provide the needed margin of safety to use runways 32 Left and 4 Left again, Cooper said.

The goal is to increase O'Hare's capacity and hold flight delays to a minimum while adhering to the new safety requirements, he said.

It's too early to determine the exact number of flights being diverted from their previous flight paths at O'Hare, Cooper said.

But in March, about 400 flights departed daily on the runway combination that no longer is being used between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., according to data provided Friday by the Chicago Department of Aviation. Those flights are now being sent to other runways, contributing to the most recent changes in jet noise patterns, officials said.

jhilkevitch@tribune.com

Twitter @jhilkevitch

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