Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city's major airlines have struck a deal to build the final runway envisioned in the city's multibillion-dollar modernization of O'Hare International Airport, but new gates that experts agree are key to significant reductions in long-standing flight delays are not part of the pact.
The agreement, which the mayor formally announced Saturday, calls for spending $1.3 billion to build a sixth east-west runway at the airfield’s north end, de-icing pads to get planes to take off more quickly and new taxiways to pick up the pace of planes going to and from far-flung gates, city officials said.
However, the plan does not include additional terminal space that would increase the number of gates at the nation's second-busiest airport — something Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said was needed to address flight delays when Emanuel appointed her last year.
Emanuel remains hopeful that the runway agreement will pave the way for a possible city-airline deal on new gates, which American Airlines and United Airlines have long resisted because of the potential competition they would bring.
"This is the building block," the mayor said Friday in a telephone interview. "There's an order to this, and I know what we have to get done. They know it, we've been clear."
Evans said the deal also includes plans for new hangars and ground-support equipment buildings. And the mayor said the city is making plans to build a pair of hotels and upgrade the Hilton that's already there.
The hotels "will allow Chicago, for the business it used to lose, to win that back," Emanuel said. "Dallas is doing that. Denver is doing that. So that's kind of the new thing. ... That's a great source of revenue we don't have today."
In touting the deal, the mayor offered some lofty rhetoric, saying it's time to move beyond measuring O'Hare simply by the number of flights logged there each year.
"One way in the past to measure O'Hare was busiest," Emanuel said. "That's one measure. My goal is best. And that's 'O'Hare 21,' which is what I'm naming this, but everything we're going to do is preparing O'Hare to be the economic engine, job-growth engine for the 21st century. It played a central role in Chicago's ability to be a world-class city in the last 40 years, but if we don't invest in it — we can't rest on our laurels."
The O'Hare deal is a bit of good news for Emanuel, whose administration has been rocked for months by the fallout from the release of the Laquan McDonald police shooting video. But the new runway also could lead to more complaints from anti-noise advocates who live near the airport.
Indeed, congressmen representing areas surrounding O'Hare late Friday expressed concern about proceeding with the construction of the sixth runway, even as they lauded the focus on "some much needed improvements," specifically the de-icing pads and new taxiways.
"We believe that prioritizing the construction of yet another east-west runway without first addressing the significant increases in noise that our constituents have endured since the implementation of the O'Hare Modernization Program comes at the expense of our constituents' health and property values," U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley, Tammy Duckworth and Jan Schakowsky said in a joint statement.
The latest plan will have three funding sources: $345 million from the Federal Aviation Administration; $200 million from passenger facility charges tacked onto each airline ticket; and hundreds of millions of dollars in aviation bonds to be covered by airport revenue, largely through fees paid by the airlines under "use and lease" agreements, Evans said. The project will not result in increased costs to passengers, she said.
Evans said the next big effort is to negotiate new use and lease agreements with United and American, with the current ones set to expire in 2018.
Since 2005, the city has spent about $10 billion on the modernization project. Despite the construction of new runways in a parallel, east-west configuration designed to increase capacity and efficiency, O'Hare continues to have some of the longest flight delays among large U.S. airports.
"The shortage of gates is a serious issue that has to be addressed," said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group. The shortage not only causes delays but also drives up the price of flying in and out of O'Hare because it limits the ability of lower-cost airlines like Spirit and Virgin Atlantic to add flights.
That lessens competition for American and United, which consistently have resisted efforts to end their near-monopoly at O'Hare. "That borders on anti-competitive behavior, and those airlines are going to have to learn to take it on the chin when it comes to what the city wants," Harteveldt said.
United and American executives issued statements praising the deal but declined interview requests. The original O'Hare modernization plan was rolled out by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2003, and it called for more gates and a new terminal at the west end of O'Hare that would have added about 50 gates. But United and American executives have long resisted that aspect.
Evans reiterated Friday that new gates are an important piece of untying the O'Hare gridlock, but she said the improvements that have been agreed to will clear the way for eventual new terminals by removing an old diagonal runway and taxiway system that's blocking development at the north end of the airport.
"When you take those two things out, we end up with a massive piece of real estate to develop, and that is what will allow us to completely modernize O'Hare," Evans said.
Talks on how to do that can move along now, she added, as work proceeds on the new runway that's slated to open in 2020. "We'll be looking at different layouts for concourses, terminals, what will suit their business plans best," she added.
When she took the job last June, Evans hinted at changes to the Daley plan by saying that additional gates were needed elsewhere at the airport to accommodate the increased flight capacity created by the construction of new runways in recent years. On Friday she said the prospect of potential gates elsewhere at the airport could entice the two big airlines.
"For the first time Chicago has put a plan on the table that allows them to add gates to their facilities," Evans said. "So this is huge for them. The old plan kind of sent the message that we're going to build gates for somebody else. Of course they opposed that.
"This plan is specifically intended to say to United and American (that) we want you to grow at O'Hare and we intend to give you the real estate to do that," she said.
Evans also said that there would be room for "OALs," or "other airlines," to use some of the new gates the city would like to build. The city will seek their input as it tries to move forward with expanded terminal plans, she added.
For years, United and American executives had resisted the new runway, which they maintained was not yet necessary, given current levels of traffic at O'Hare. Their approval is crucial, given that the fees they pay finance a large chunk of airport improvements.
"I've been here 7 1/2 months now," said Evans, who replaced longtime Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino. "When I came, this deal was deader than a doornail."
To cement the agreement, Emanuel began talking to FAA officials in September on a trip to Washington, D.C., about getting a big chunk of federal funding sooner to make it more affordable for the airlines, Evans and Emanuel said.
The new runway and taxiways also could help improve on-time flight performance for the airlines after their recent moves to return to a system that "banks" flights in blocks of closer takeoff and landing intervals. More runways will help that system run smoother, Evans said.
"The cost of delays is not insignificant," Evans said. "The cost to them of having delayed aircraft is tens of millions of dollars. So they need that extra capacity to follow through on the commitments they made to their customers about improving the experience as they go through the terminals and concourses and O'Hare."
Although he questioned the $1.3 billion price tag for the new work, travel industry analyst Harteveldt did say the new runway and de-icing pads should improve efficiency and reliability and help the city keep United and American happy. Moving de-icing pads away from the terminal buildings, in particular, will allow departing planes to leave gates more quickly, creating space for arriving planes to reach their gates, he said.
The new runway will be 11,245 feet long, which makes it capable of handling "the biggest airplanes on the planet," Evans said. "These are the large airplanes that go to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Sydney."
Today those big planes, which Evans called "heavies," take off from an airstrip at the south end of the airport. Once aloft they head north, which prevents the use of three other runways as they depart O'Hare. By moving the big planes to the new runway, only one of five runways will be blocked.
Once the new runway is complete, the annual capacity for O'Hare airport takeoffs and landings will increase from 214 an hour to 267, or about 25 percent, she said.
Evans also said the new de-icing pads, which will move those wintertime operations away from the gates where they now take place, will free up the gates for other planes to use. The new taxiway configuration also will help, Evans said.
But that increase in capacity also is sure to rile the activists who have been protesting the airplane noise on the city's Northwest Side and the suburbs surrounding O'Hare. On Wednesday they emerged from a long-sought meeting with Emanuel to declare that he didn't care about them — an allegation Evans immediately rejected.
Since late 2013, when flight paths moved more to the east and west under the new runway configuration, noise has increased dramatically in some areas, while decreasing in others. That triggered a dramatic increase in complaints.
Completion of the new runway, Evans said, could benefit places like Schiller Park, where airplane noise rose under the new configuration. That's because the city, under FAA rules, can work to soundproof homes in those harder-hit areas as the runway is being built.
Evans noted other sound-mitigation efforts the city is working on, such as alternating nighttime use of the east-west runways and implementing "precision-based navigation" that would allow planes to shift flight paths to the north and south quickly after takeoff. Airlines, meanwhile, are converting to quieter engines, she said last week.
Another point the anti-noise advocates won't like: The plan requires closing and demolishing a diagonal runway they wanted the city to maintain to spread flights out in areas near O'Hare. One of four diagonals already has been shut down, and another must go to help clear the land where the city envisions new terminals, Evans said.
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