NATO summit could have big impact at O'Hare

April 12, 2012 3:25:42 PM PDT
Travelers flying at Chicago's O'Hare Airport could feel the impact of the NATO summit next month.

When hundreds of world leaders fly into Chicago, they will be using an already busy O'Hare Airport with its tightly-packed schedule of take-offs and landings. ABC 7's Paul Meincke takes a look at what might happen when you add all those dignitaries and their jets to the mix:

It's a prescription for delays, though we don't know if that will happen, or if they do, how long they will last.

There are many jets under foreign flag headed for Chicago for NATO weekend. It's no small challenge, as Pittsburgh learned when it hosted a global summit in 2009. Just a few short months before the G20 was to come to Pittsburgh, the airport director gets the news in a phone call.

"Pittsburgh is hosting the G20, and what's a G20. I mean you read about it, but really who is coming? Oh, we're expecting just about every head of state in the free world plus some, and oh, by the way, they will all fly in," said Bradley Penrod, executive director of the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

And fly in, they did. At least 54 heads of state -- each with their own planes -- some of them in Air Force One-size jumbos, plus dignitaries from partner nations, plus support aircraft. A deicing pad on the airfield served as the arrival point.

"So the aircraft would come in. Protocol receiving line would welcome them with the appropriate country flag. And then their motorcade would pick them up, and off they would go," said Penrod.

Pittsburgh counted 108 motorcades from the airport. All this meant lots of planning, lots of protocols, with no margin for error.

Now, consider O'Hare, an airport that is under construction, that handles six times the number of daily operations as Pittsburgh, and will likely be handling many more foreign aircraft with NATO than Pittsburgh did with G20.

"O'Hare is a big, complex place, so it depends greatly on when they arrive," said Joe Schwieterman, DePaul University aviation expert.

The arrival of all those dignitaries could mean some measure of delays for regular passengers the Sunday and Monday of the NATO summit.

"I don't think you can tell top diplomatic officials when their plane can arrive," said Schwieterman. "I think they're going to arrive on their schedules. That's where the complications are going to come in."

Penrod says his team essentially ran two operations, one for regular travelers and one for the G20 VIPs, and in the end it all worked out.

"Whenever VIP planes get delayed, somebody will make a phone call. The only call we got was 'Well done.' That's all we needed to hear," Penrod said.

When the NATO nation aircraft arrive, they all have to be refueled, and readied for a quick departure if one is needed. And there is always the issue of where do you park the planes and who gets the preferred spots? That, Penrod says, is something the State Department sorts out.

Chicago's aviation commissioner declined ABC 7's request for an interview.

As for the possibility of some passenger delays NATO weekend, an aviation spokesperson says they anticipate normal travel schedules.