Regulators lifting flight caps at O'Hare

CHICAGO The FAA is not fond of imposing flight caps, but four years ago O'Hare was so delay-ridden, the FAA decided that something had to be done. So, the caps came, but in four-and-a-half months, they'll be gone.

During peak times, O'Hare used to handle just over 110 arrivals per hour. But four years ago, the FAA decided to limit the arrival rate to no more than 88-flights-an-hour, because O'Hare's delay rate was so severe it was clogging the entire national air traffic control system.

"I'm here today to say that the City of Chicago has really outdone itself when it comes to boosting capacity," said Robert Sturgell, FAA acting administrator.

Although delays at O'Hare are still a problem, the FAA is removing the arrival flight cap at the end of October for a couple reasons: major carriers like United and American have been significantly cutting back on their schedules, largely because of record high fuel costs, and the other reason is O'Hare's new northern runway.

The new 7,500-foot northern runway is scheduled to be ready for business November 20 along with a new control tower to oversee operations on the northern side of the airport. The new runway will allow O'Hare to accept another 56-to-70 flights per day, and the FAA says it will help ease delays.

"We're hedging our bets. It'll be more traffic for the passengers, certainly, because we service requests coming in, a delays will be flat or they will be improved," said Sturgell.

The new runway and the extension of an existing runway are part of the first phase of O'Hare's modernization program. The FAA says significant relief from the delay problem at O'Hare won't happen until the completion of new east-west runways that are part of phase two of the expansion plan. As of now, United and American have not yet committed to financing phase two. The Mayor says it will, nonetheless, go forward with a completion date set for 2014.

"You have to have that vision. If you don't, then, by 2014 this airport will be old. This airport won't have the capacity without the new runways. You have to be able to cut the delays down," said Mayor Richard Daley.

While the legacy carriers are reporting huge financial losses, the FAA says its long term forecast calls for growth in commercial aviation. And as it lifts the flight cap at O'Hare, the FAA says it's requiring the airlines to submit their schedules six months before they take effect.

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