Mayor announces O'Hare expansion plans

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city's airline carriers are in the final stages of negotiating an $8.5 billion deal to dramatically expand O'Hare International Airport. (WLS)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city's airline carriers are in the final stages of negotiating an $8.5 billion deal to dramatically expand O'Hare International Airport.

The eight-year plan would be the single largest and most expensive terminal revamp in the airport's history. The goal is to increase the number of international flights and create more room for domestic carriers.

O'Hare could double in size if the plan is approved.

"This is Chicago's once in a lifetime chance to leapfrog the global competition, to become gold standard for aviation and transportation," Emanuel said Monday.

The mayor promised new glory days for the 73-year-old symbol of the Jet Age - and one whose infrastructure in large part dates from that era. O'Hare hasn't made any major upgrades to its international terminal over the last two decades, while airports in New York, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta spent a combined $18 billion on their international terminals, according to Chicago Department of Aviation figures.

The proposal, which is to be unveiled Wednesday, reimagines the airport. Emanuel is using leverage from an expiring O'Hare Use Agreement with United and American airlines to propose a new Global Hub Terminal for them that would replace Terminal 2, complete with a pair of satellite terminals connected by new underground walkways which would keep their international alliance partners nearby.

The global terminal would have wider concourses and gates to accommodate larger aircrafts that embark on international flights to places like Hong Kong and Dubai.

The multi-year plan substantially expands Terminals 1, 3, and 5 for non-hub airlines. Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said the total number of gates would increase from 185 to about 220 upon the project's completion in 2026.

"You snooze, you lose in this business," said Evans. "Our competitors are out there investing, adding capacity, and we have got to do the same."

The plan would utilize no taxpayer money; the airlines are willing to fit the bill apparently for the promise of better facilities and customer experience.

City officials said the aviation department would borrow against future airline fees to pay for construction, which wouldn't require taxpayer dollars.

For the flying public, wider concourses, snappier connections and removal of the dread that many have when contemplating a trip through O'Hare appear to be the upside to the deal.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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