New O`Hare Airport runway to ease congestion, delays - Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com

New O`Hare Airport runway to ease congestion, delays

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CHICAGO (Associated Press) -

Ten years into its $8 billion airfield overhaul, O'Hare International Airport is opening a second new runway that officials say will begin to ease the Chicago hub airport's congestion and eliminate the flight delays that have a ripple effect across the country.

Planes are scheduled to start landing and taking off Thursday morning on the 10,800-foot runway in the southern half of the airport's footprint. That will mark the end of the first phase of the O'Hare Modernization Program, a massive project begun in part to address the crippling delays and maintain the airport's status as a key crossroads in the nation's transportation architecture.

The question now is how soon travelers will start to notice. O'Hare still ranks at or near the bottom in on-time departures.

"O'Hare's been bottled up for so long. This could lead to some exciting things, some new services," said Joseph Schwieterman, Chicago-based transportation researcher at DePaul University, adding that a low-cost carrier could even move in.

Supporters also claim a more efficient O'Hare benefits the whole country's air travel system.

"Reducing delays saves money for the airlines and for their passengers," says Jim Compton, Chief Revenue Officer for United.

Under the project, which began in 2013, the airfield's crisscrossing runways will be reconfigured into a parallel layout that officials say would allow more aircraft to take off and land. The lattice network of runways was conceived to allow pilots to take off and land under different crosswind patterns; aircraft technology has largely eliminated that need.

When the project is complete, O'Hare will have six parallel and two crosswind runways.

The major expansion pieces yet to be completed are two parallel runways, a control tower, and an extension to an existing runway. One of those new runways and the control tower are under construction, but the city's airline partners in the mega project have yet to agree on how to divvy up the funding of $2.3 billion worth of work still needed to build the final runway and extension.

The new runway includes lighting and navigational technology that will allow more planes to land and take off in poor weather and with reduced visibility. During good weather, up to 150 planes an hour will be able to take off from the runway, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

It's hard to exaggerate O'Hare's role in the economy in Chicago. Experts estimate that about 450,000 jobs here depend on the huge airport. Their guessing the new runway could help attract another 50,000 jobs, by allowing lots more flights and by cutting O'Hare's chronic delays in half. Many helped it happen, including one who was otherwise occupied Thursday, but did get a round of applause.

"We would not be here today without the support of President Obama," Chicago's Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said Thursday.

Indeed, the president and his first transportation secretary, former Peoria Congressman Ray LaHood, steered millions of extra federal dollars to the huge O'Hare Modernization Project, assuring its completion despite a bad recession.

Chronic flight delays at O'Hare, where around half of travelers are just transiting, sent paralyzing shockwaves around the nation's air system in the late 1990s. It was a sign that you were an experienced traveler if you said you were trying to avoid O'Hare, Schwieterman said.

"You could hardly mention O'Hare without somebody pulling out a horror story," he said. "And that was well deserved. Everybody had seen trips go up in smoke due to intolerable delays."

Recent data indicates the airport still has some catching up to do.

Of the nation's 29 busiest airports, O'Hare ranked dead last in on-time departures throughout the first seven months of this year, with only about 67 percent of flights taking off on schedule, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

That represents a slip of three places in the rankings over the same period a year earlier, when O'Hare's on-time rate was 77 percent.

It was because of these chronic delays that O'Hare lost its long-held title as "World's Busiest Airport" in 2005 to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson. That was after the Federal Aviation Administration ordered O'Hare to reduce its number of flights.

O'Hare could now regain the title if predictions of as many 90,000 new flights are accurate. That could attract 50,000 new jobs and generate at least $4 billion a year in new economic activity. But the new East-West runway -- and a companion runway scheduled to open in 2015 -- have angered a new group of O'Hare neighbors now confronted for the first time by jet noise overhead.

"We're gonna try to find ways that we can actually fly the aircraft in long turn patterns that will minimize the noise issue," Rep. Tammy Duckworth assured.

"We're very sensitive as a city," added Emanuel. "But in a balanced approach that helps the communities while keeping these economic engines that are so vital for the city to continue its economic growth."

City aviation officials had to overcome numerous challenges to get to this midway point in the project. They fought a five-year legal battle with a church over a plot of land that included a cemetery started by German pioneers in the mid-1800s. The city needed the area for the expansion and relocated about 1,500 graves, agreeing last year to pay the church $1.3 million in a settlement.

American and United, which are helping bankroll the expansion project, sued Chicago in 2011 to stop it from issuing bonds to finance the project, arguing that the city was violating a lease the gives them authority to review and approve expenditures for capital projects. Then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had to intervene to break that dispute.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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