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

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.

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.

The city's top priority is moving ahead with site preparation for the expansion, Andolino said.

Earlier this year, city officials tossed out construction bids that came in over budget for the first new runway on the north airfield.

Much of the work is now focused on building concrete box culverts to divert portions of the relocated Willow-Higgins Creek underground.

Trees are being removed and tall berms excavated on the south airfield to get ready for leveling the land and building runways there.

But about 475 parcels, mostly in Bensenville, still must be acquired, said O'Hare expansion spokesman Roderick Drew.

The land the city needs for new runways includes St. Johannes Cemetery, which Chicago and St. John's United Church of Christ in Bensenville are fighting over in federal court, eight months after the FAA approved the airport expansion.

jhilkevitch@tribune.com

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