O'Hare Expansion in Holding Pattern: Plan's Viability, Scope Questioned as Costs Rise

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.

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.

O'Hare expansion critics in Elk Grove Village and Bensenville who are waging a court battle to stop Chicago from condemning their properties for the airport expansion say the relatively modest increase in flight capacity does not justify taking their homes and businesses.

Although Markwell and other FAA officials said air-traffic operations went smoothly during simulations of the expanded O'Hare, the airport's controllers who participated in the tests disagreed.

The controllers said the simulations revealed excessive taxiing times--as long as 4 miles and 45 minutes for planes to reach their gates after landing--and a very congested airport bordering on gridlock conditions.

"It was just an ugly situation, so bad that controllers were yelling at each other and we had to stop the simulation," said Craig Burzych, local president of the controllers union at O'Hare tower. "It just didn't work, and it's going to be a nightmare if this expansion plan goes through."

The controllers blamed many of the problems on the city's new airfield layout, saying there aren't enough taxiways going around the north side of the terminals. The result is a bottleneck at the intersection of two key taxiways--Bravo and Lima Lima--on the southeast side of the airfield.

"Lima Lima and Bravo looked like the Kennedy-Edens junction at rush hour," Burzych said.

Andolino, Chicago's airport expansion chief, said city officials anticipated that the taxiway intersection might become a choke point, and they are considering adding a circular taxiway to reroute United planes, which account for more than 40 percent of O'Hare operations.

But building the new taxiway would require relocating an existing runway farther north, Andolino said.

She said a decision would be made later, depending in part on how fast flight operations grow at the expanded O'Hare.

The city has failed to identify funding for the Lima Lima taxiway, which the FAA says is critical to making the new runways work efficiently. The airlines have balked at city requests to provide the funding.

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.

Even then, the runway, at the far north end of the airfield, will be used sparingly for a while because of a delay in breaking ground for a new air-traffic control tower, according to the FAA. Groundbreaking had been set for this spring, but it was pushed back until the fall.

If the northern runway opens in late 2008, controllers will initially direct planes using the runway from a temporary control tower, FAA officials said.

"The city is building the north tower, so they are in charge of the construction and the schedule," said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.

And the reduction in delays as a result of the first new runway will be negligible--from 16 minutes of delay per plane to 15 1/2 minutes, FAA computer modeling has shown.

The real benefits come later, if the project can be completed.

But the timetable is in flux for the city's planned extension of an existing runway and the construction of a second new runway.

The runways were supposed to open in 2009 under the plan Chicago submitted to the FAA, but the construction dates now are "to be determined," according to the FAA.

We Recommend