By Ian Petchenik / Published April 21, 2014
The third in a series on the history of the famous Chicago hub, author Ian Petchmo goes behind the scenes to discover an airport rushed into the jet age and in a state of constant expansion. Can it take it? Miss parts one and two? Read part one here! Read part two here!
At the turn of the twenty-first century, everyone agreed that something needed to be done about the delays at O’Hare. The airport held the ignominious distinction of delay capital of the U.S., managing a consistency in delayed operations matched by no other airport in the country. What no one agree on, however, was how to solve the problem.
The disagreement over how to address O’Hare’s tribulations came in many varieties: Republican vs. Democrat, city vs. state, urban vs. suburban and rural, and airlines vs. airports. At the heart of the disagreement was whether or not to build a third airport in the region. Plans for a third airport in the region were shelved in 1970 and 1990, but never fully discarded. In 1992, the FAA authorized funds for planning an airport in Peotone, Illinois, about 43 miles south of Chicago. Richard M. Daley, the mayor of Chicago at the time, opposed such an airport, as did American and United Airlines, the two dominant carriers at O’Hare. Daley worked to have the funding removed, and in 1993 funds for the planning study were pulled.
Proponents argued that a south suburban airport would alleviate congestion and boost the surrounding economy. The Peotone airport was also championed by the suburban communities surrounding O’Hare. The suburbs were opposed to expansion of the airport for a number of reasons, chiefly among them the potential loss of a land and increased noise. Those against the new airport pointed to the fact the construction of a new airport would do nothing to alleviate O’Hare’s structural problems and the location was quite far from the city.
In 1998, Chicago announced the World Gateway Program, a project to add gate capacity and other improvements to the Terminal Core Area, but without any adjustments to the airfield’s runways. The WGP proposed renovations to Terminals 2, 3, and 5, and construction of new Terminals 4 and 6. Terminal 2 would be reconfigured for use by Star Alliance carriers, including the addition of Federal Inspection Services so the terminal could handle international arrivals. At Terminal 3, Concourse K would be expanded, while Concourse L would be removed. In place of Concourse L and the current heating and refrigeration building a new Terminal 4 would be constructed and connected to Terminal 3. Terminal 4 would also house FIS facilities, enabling international arrival handling. Terminal 5 would be reconfigured to better integrate with a newly built Terminal 6, which would host O’Hare’s non-hub domestic carriers. Additionally, a number of related projects such as an expanded Airport Transit System, reconfigured ground access, and increased parking were slated.
By 2000, Mayor Daley was publicly ambivalent about the third airport and was arguing that congestion at O’Hare could be mitigated without the construction of any new runways. Daley’s confidence was not shared by all concerned. The Commercial Club of Chicago released a regional planning document calling for expansion at O’Hare and a third airport in the south suburbs. An affiliated organization, the Civic Committee, commissioned a separate study specifically addressing aviation in Chicago. It, too, saw a need for both expansion and a new airport. Daley had backed himself into a corner: it was clear that expansion at O’Hare was needed, but if he called for it now, it would open the door for proponents of the third airport arguing for more regional capacity.
The gridlock at O’Hare, both on the runway and off, was gaining national attention. Reporters for the Chicago Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for their November 2000 article on the political infighting over Chicago’s airports. Senators Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley introduced a bill with the purpose of making construction at a large hub airport, such as O’Hare, harder to block. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation even held a hearing on O’Hare expansion. Senator John McCain lamented, “We can’t get O’Hare expanded, and we can’t build another airport. And those are the only two options.”
In June of 2001, Mayor Daley unveiled the O’Hare Modernization Plan. After the attention paid to the World Gateway Program and pressure from those in favor a third airport, it was thought that Daley’s new plan would include an additional runway at O’Hare. Daley, however, released a much more ambitious plan which foresaw the wholesale reconfiguration of O’Hare from a system of intersecting runways to a primarily east-west configuration. The plan called for the construction of four new runways, the lengthening of two, the closure of two, and myriad other airfield improvements. Additionally, the OMP incorporates and expands on the World Gateway Program. The renovations to Terminal 2 and 3 and the addition of Terminals 4 and 6 were included, as well as plans for a new Terminal 7 complex on the west side of the airfield. The west terminal would be served by a new Western Access Road and underground people mover to allow passenger access to the Terminal Core Area.
As late as September 2001, Illinois Governor George Ryan was publicly opposed to any expansion at O’Hare, but in October he made a surprise turn and announced his own plan that largely supported Mayor Daley’s proposal, but also called for the construction of a third airport in Peotone and the preservation of Meigs Field on Chicago’s lakefront. A few months later, Daley and Ryan reached a compromise agreement which would expand O’Hare, create a new airport in Peotone, and keep Meigs Field open—at least for a few more years. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who supported the plan, began advancing legislation that would help pay for the airfield improvements. Senator Peter Fitzgerald, the other senator from Illinois, opposed the legislation, forcing Ryan and Daley to take their request for funding to the state level.
After four years of study, the FAA announced approval of the World Gateway Program in June of 2002, but only a few months later the World Gateway Project ground to a halt. The airlines, who were in a precarious financial position, argued that they were in no shape to help pay for an extensive upgrade of the airport’s facilities. The plans for all terminal construction were placed on indefinite hold. The funding for the runway upgrades, however, continued to move through the state legislature, which approved the project in 2003. Chicago then submitted a final version of the O’Hare Modernization Plan to the FAA and received final approved to begin construction in September 2005. In May of 2003, Chicago and the airlines agreed on a funding structure for Phase 1 of the OMP, which included the lengthening of Runway 10L-28R and the construction of 9L-27R, 10C-28C, and a north field air traffic control tower.
Just because the airlines had agreed to the plan didn’t mean the surrounding suburbs were content. The plan to expand O’Hare once again hinged on land acquisition, and the Village of Bensenville on the airport’s western border stood to lose over 500 homes and businesses, almost 15 percent of the village. Chicago would also need to move two more cemeteries—St. Johannes and Resthaven—in order to complete the expansion project. Lawsuits over the expansion of O’Hare were nothing new and Bensenville wasted no time seeking to stop the expansion in the courts. Bensenville’s legal objection to O’Hare’s expansion ended in 2009 when the village agreed to a deal, allowing the acquisition of almost all the land needed for the runway expansion.
St. John’s United Church of Christ, which owned the St. Johannes cemetery, also filed suit against the city seeking to stop its relocation. The church lost both state and federal lawsuit to block the move, and in 2011, Chicago began the process of moving the burial site. Chicago also modified plans for the south airfield such that relocation of the Resthaven Cemetery became unnecessary.
While the city dealt with the objections of Bensenville and St. John’s to the south airfield, construction began on the north side of the airport in 2005 shortly after the FAA’s approval of the OMP. The OMP began with construction of the north air traffic control tower and Runway 9L-27R, a 7,500 foot runway that would initially serve to help the airport land more aircraft during poor weather. In 2006, construction began on the extension of 10L-28R from 10,000 to 13,000 feet. Runway 9L-27R and the north ATC tower opened in November 2008. In 2010, demolition commenced on the Bensenville properties, allowing for the relocation of a major railway and road. In December of that year, work was completed on the 10C-28C West portion of OMP’s Phase 1. This included the western portion of the runway as well as the taxiway and ramp infrastructure for FedEx’s new cargo facility. The old facility sat directly where the runway would go. Construction was finished on 10C-28C in October 2013, providing O’Hare with its first 200-foot-wide runway.
The global economic downturn almost brought the O’Hare Modernization Program to halt in January 2011, when United and American sued to stop the project. By 2010, the airlines were arguing that the OMP was no longer necessary given the falling demand for air travel. Chicago maintained the OMP would help the city prepare for the eventual rebound in demand. The U.S. Department of Transportation mediated discussions between the city and the airlines and an agreement was reached in March 2011 that allowed for continued work on the OMP.
The agreement broke Phase 2 of the project into two parts, Phase 2A and 2B. Phase 2A comprised the construction Runway 10R-28L and the south ATC tower. It also included a number of smaller airfield projects and the extension of the ATS system to a new economy parking structure. Phase 2B included the extension of 9R-27L and the construction of 9C-27C. Phase 2A is slated for completion at the end of 2015. Phase 2B completion targets are still to be determined.
Whatever the eventual decision regarding the Master Plan for O’Hare, the decade and a half since the introduction of the World Gateway Program has seen a massive number of improvements to the airfield. At the end of the O’Hare Modernization Program the airport will have been transformed from three pairs of intersecting runways to six east-west runways and two northeast-southwest runways. Many questions remain about the future of O’Hare, chiefly the future for the World Gateway Program. While the WGP was included in the airports Master Plan of 2004, little progress has been made on the terminal improvements and construction envisioned in the plan. Passenger numbers at O’Hare have fallen from their historic highs, so it remains to be seen when or if future terminals will be built.
When Ralph Burke first proposed his design for Orchard Place Airport nearly 75 years ago he could not have envisioned the transformation of the airport and airline industry that took place in the intervening years. From a few 5,500 foot runways to multiple runways twice that long and a terminal complex that continues to grow, O’Hare generally grows one direction: out. Whether or not this round of expansion will be enough to keep O’Hare competitive in the twenty-first century remains to be seen.