New O'Hare runway dedicated

Reports: Airlines call for halt to airport expansion
November 20, 2008 7:15:11 PM PST
The new runway at O'Hare Airport is now open for business. But, amid the celebrations as the first plane touches down, new concerns are surfacing from the airport's largest carriers. They now call moving ahead with the $15 billion expansion project "premature and inappropriate."

The new runway is Chicago's first in 37 years. It was built to help reduce delays at the nation's second busiest airport. The ultimate goal of the O'Hare expansion project is to replace the airport's old layout of intersecting runways with a parallel runway system. The new northern runway is the first one to be built, at a cost of $450 million.

This is a significant day in Chicago aviation history. A new runway is now operational. The Daley administration, the FAA, and the airlines are celebrating that.

At the same time, the airlines -- beaten and battered by the economy -- have deep reservations about the O'Hare expansion yet to come, and the depth of those reservations is made clear in a letter from the airlines to the city earlier this summer.

United dubbed the inaugural flight Runway 1, a 757 filled with local politicians and transportation officials who cheered on touch down. The new Runway 9 left, 27 right is designed primarily to handle arrivals, easing the bad weather burden at O'Hare, but it will have only a marginal impact on easing delays. The big delay relief comes only after the addition to new runways on the south side of O'Hare.

"This is a great day. A lot of people were pessimistic but we all came together and worked together," said Mayor Daley.

The city Thursday sought to keep the focus on a new runway and control tower completed on time and under budget, but the rest of the O'Hare Modernization Project has huge financial question marks.

In a letter this summer to the city and FAA, O'Hare's two major carriers wrote, "it is premature and inappropriate to commit hundreds of millions of dollars in PFC funding toward the complete design of such airfield projects."

That strongly underscores that the airlines are not now prepared to commit to the multi-billion dollar second phase of O'Hare expansion.

Mayor Daley said Thursday that O'Hare expansion remains full-speed ahead, and the chairman of United says his airline remains committed to O'Hare modernization, but at the same time he says there must be dialogue and flexibility.

"The dialogue should continue so there will be an appropriate sizing of the project," said Glenn Tilton, United Airlines CEO.

But the solution hardly appears to be a simple one. The airlines say they agree with the business model for O'Hare expansion, but their letter to the city back in June -- first obtained by The Chicago Tribune -- makes clear that their financial health is precarious, and they are not in a position now to support spending a lot of money on the multi-million dollar design and engineering of new runways.

Two other major airports also opened new runways Thursday. The first plane to take off from the new runway at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. It's the first runway that the airport has added since it opened with three runways in 1962.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport also a third runway Thursday. It cost more than $1 billion, partly due to efforts to save salmon spawning grounds. The runway was designed to decrease delays during periods of low visibility, which occur nearly half the year in Seattle.

While this piece of pavement is done, the cost of the next phase of O'Hare expansion, which would include two new southern airfield runways, remains a huge question mark.

O'Hare's two major carriers, United and American, told the city as far back as June that spending nearly $200 million on the design and engineering of the next phase of airport expansion would be premature and inappropriate. Further, that the proposed Western terminal is ill-conceived and should be removed from the plan.

"We'll take care of that later on, but this is a day I want every Chicago newspaper to say this is an exciting day for Chicago," Daley said.

The airlines, too, say this is an exciting day, but their economic health is far different today than it was when O'Hare expansion was first launched. United's CEO said Thursday afternoon that the airlines support modernization as a "broad, competitive principle, but they need flexibility. So does that mean the plan gets changed?

"I don't know that because, as I said, it's gonna be a function of the continuing dialogue of what's most important for the region," said Glenn Tilton, United CEO.

Suburban officials, residents still fighting expansion

Officials and many residents in suburban Bensenville are still fighting O'Hare expansion. Homes and property in Bensenville have been purchased to make room for the project.

It's understandable why city officials so quickly downplayed the airline concern about the viability of the O'Hare modernization project. Chicago already has billions of dollars on the line, including hundreds of billions spent to acquire property here in the Village of Bensenville.

Arlene Benson is one of 17 holdout homeowners who refuse to sell. Despite all the money the city has spent to buy out most of her neighbors, she remains unconvinced the O'Hare modernization program will ever move into its next phase.

"We all know that there's not enough money for this project at this time," Benson said.

A city official told ABC7 Thursday morning that Chicago has invested $500 million acquiring and demolishing property for the expanded O'Hare. Bensenville estimates about $266 million has been spent to buy 550 houses here to be torn down for the still unfunded southern runway.

"Almost all of the properties has been removed from the tax rolls and so the village has lost those tax revenues and that tax burden gets shifted to the remaining taxpayers," said Jim Johnson, Bensenville city manager.

At the opening of the new northern runway Mayor Daley did not seem concerned that United and American airlines have joined Bensenville officials in calling the next phase of the project "premature and inappropriate" because of its price tag.

"I know the headlines are screaming in all the newspapers how exciting the runway is to, not only Chicago -- I love those headlines," said Mayor Daley.

But the headlines have strengthened the resolve of Arlene Benson. She has faith the empty houses in her neighborhood will come alive again when, she says, the city realizes it cannot afford to expand O'Hare.

"I don't think there is anything in the foreseeable future with the economy the way it is that's going to enable this project to go on," said Benson.

While airport expansion moneys do come from a variety of different sources, the critics in Bensenville point to the city's worsening financial crisis as the best evidence that Chicago cannot afford to move ahead with the O'Hare Modernization Project.


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