Reconfiguring O'Hare: Officials see airfield changes as solution to regional delays

April 8, 2004


Reconfiguring O ’Hare

By Jodi Richards, Associate Editor

Officials see airfield changes as solution to regional delays

Rosemarie Andolino

CHICAGO — O’Hare International Airport’s central location has helped earn it the status of world’s busiest airport in terms of operations. “However,” says Rosemarie Andolino, O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP) executive director, “we also wear the hat of the nation’s most delayed airport.” The solution, say officials, is found in the $6.6 billion OMP, which includes realigning the airfield to reflect a more contemporary layout. And it’s all part of ORD’s $14.8 billion, 20-year master plan.

Also included in the master plan, says Andolino, a 13-year employee of the City of Chicago, is a capital improvement program estimated at $4.1 billion for ongoing maintenance and security and terminal enhancements. "With or without the other two elements, this would exist," she adds. The third element is the $2.6 billion World Gateway Program, first announced in 1999, which includes Terminal 4, Terminal 6, and the refurbishing of Terminal 2.

The summer of 2001 was the "worst summer of operations ever" for ORD, says Andolino. "Everybody was complaining all over the place because delays here were affecting the national aviation system tremendously. Congress then held hearings and mandated that the local leaders here come up with a solution to solve the delay problem at O’Hare, and they did. And that solution became the O’Hare Modernization Program."

Andolino explains that the main problem at ORD is the airfield configuration. "In inclement weather, the air traffic controllers are forced to remove one of the arrival runways, so we lose one third of our capacity. O’Hare was designed for military operations and when propeller planes were really sensitive to wind direction."

When all is said and done, O’Hare will have a total of eight runways, but reconfigured in such a way to allow three separate arrival streams in IFR or certain VFR conditions. Andolino points out that if rotated, the airfield layout is identical to the layout of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. "So it’s not a unique system," she says. "We’re not doing anything exotic. We’re doing something that’s a proven system; we know it would work. We’re just straightening out our airfield so we use it the best way possible."

The first phase of the project, construction of the new 9L/27R on the north end of the field, is expected to be completed by 2007. "This is the runway that will best assist in the delay reduction," says Andolino. "Because then we will have three independent arrival streams." The extension of 10L/28R and the relocation of 10C/28C are expected to be finished in 2009, and the remainder of the program is scheduled for completion in 2013.

"In order to realize a delay savings of 79 percent for the airport and 95 percent in bad weather, we have to realize the entire build-out," Andolino explains.

As for the airlines at ORD, Andolino says they are in favor of the OMP. “They can’t wait for this to happen,” she says. “The airlines will save $370 million per year in delay savings. If you total that up for ten years, it comes to close to $8 billion. Our program is $6.6 billion — it pays for itself with that alone. The cost of doing nothing at O’Hare is much higher. The benefits of this program are enormous; with 195,000 new jobs that will create $18 billion in new economic activity to this region’s economy. This nation needs jobs. This (OMP) provides jobs.”

In July 2003, according to Andolino, the airlines, in a majority in interest agreement, agreed to finance phase one of the OMP, which calls for $2.9 billion in financing. “That’s the confidence they have in the project,” she says. Under the agreement, 65 percent of the financing for Phase 1 will come from general airport revenue bonds, 23 percent from passenger facility charges, and 12 percent from federal Airport Improvement program funds.

Adds Andolino, “In addition, there was an agreement to save the airlines $100 million in existing O’Hare debt by refinancing and restructuring [it]. To date we’ve had two bond refinancings, and into 2004 we will have saved the airlines $45 million. So we’re well on our way to that $100 million in savings.”

“There is capacity in this region,” says Andolino. “We have Midway; Gary, Indiana; Rockford; Milwaukee; Palwaukee. So there is additional capacity if the demand were there for additional locations for passenger traffic. But the problems at O’Hare can only be solved at O’Hare.

“We’re working hard to modernize our airfield so that the benefits of an efficient O’Hare, which will minimize delays, will be able to enhance all operations. Because we know that O’Hare’s delays are not just felt at O’Hare, but across the nation. We’re working eagerly, aggressively to help mitigate that problem by creating the infrastructure on the ground with a modernized airfield.”

Currently, FAA is analyzing ORD’s airport layout plan (ALP) and developing an environmental impact statement (EIS), according to FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro. “With the plan they’ve given us, we have to look at the efficiencies and limitations of what they’ve proposed,” he says. “We’re analyzing the airfield and the airspace operations. We’re looking at surface traffic, noise modeling, and air quality. There [are] issues of social justice and historic aspects — there are two cemeteries where they’re planning a runway — so we have to look at all those things.

“We’re trying to get new technologies in that would help with efficiency. New processes and procedures that still would be safe but try to make everything more efficient.”

OMP Details

The $6.6 billion O’Hare Modernization Program is expected to provide the delay relief the Chicago region needs, according to OMP executive director Rosemarie Andolino.

The Department of Aviation’s airfield plan includes construction of a new runway, 9L/27R; relocation of 10C/28C; extension of 10L/28R (formerly 9R/27L); extension of 9R/27L (formerly 9L/27R); relocation of 14L/32R (runway 9C/27C); relocation of 14R/32L (runway 10R/28L); air traffic control towers; and, additional navigation aids.

Additionally, the plan calls for:

• 3,800 new short-term public parking spaces near the new West Terminal;
• 3,200 new long-term parking spaces on the southwest side of the airport;
• Additional employee parking lots;
• Secured automated people mover system;
• On-airport public roadways;
• On-airport service roadways;
• New West Terminal and Remote Concourse, to encompass approximately 1,527,000 square feet, 60 gates, and an underground automated people mover between the terminal and remote concourse, and “providing a front door for our western neighbors,” says Andolino;
• Southwest cargo area; eleven buildings will be relocated; and,
• Northwest maintenance area; Mount Prospect Road entrance and 15 buildings relocated.