At a cost of $516 million, a new O’Hare Airport runway opens this week with such little predicted use — initially 5 percent of all flights — that some question its bang for the buck.
City aviation officials insist the benefits of O’Hare’s fifth east-west parallel runway are “indisputable.”
Runway 10R-28L should improve efficiency and add arrival capacity when jet traffic moves from west to east — now about 30 percent of the time, officials say. That boost will be especially large during low visibility and critical during peak hours, they contend.
“The measure of value for a runway is not how frequently it is used, but the performance of the airport as a whole,” Chicago Aviation Department spokesman Owen Kilmer said.
The runway’s Thursday debut is part of an $8.7 billion overhaul that includes adding a sixth east-west runway and extending an existing one by 2021. The goals: increase capacity, reduce delays.
The plan has shifted the nation’s busiest airport in 2014 operations from heavy dependence on diagonal runways to what officials say are safer, more “modern” east-west parallel ones.
Since the big switch in flight paths two years ago, areas east and west of O’Hare, including Chicago’s Northwest Side, have been bombarded with flights that once hit mostly suburbs to the north and south. Jet noise complainants have skyrocketed to record numbers.
Some question the limitations of the new runway at the airfield’s far south end and the little initial relief it will bring Chicago and suburbs east of O’Hare now shouldering 70 percent of arrivals.
A Chicago Sun-Times/Better Government Association analysis of Federal Aviation Administration documents indicates:
For at least the next five years, FAA predictions indicate, the new runway will see only 5 percent of O’Hare traffic, or on average 121 flights a day based on the 12 most current months of operations — the least of any east-west runway. At overhaul completion, it would absorb 6 percent of flights.
The runway required its own $32 million air traffic control tower. Both will close at night.
The runway, at 7,500 feet, will be at least 1,400 feet shorter than any at the nation’s four other busiest airports. That limits some of its use by wide-bodied long-haul planes, although it should handle most traffic. It will be O’Hare’s third 7,500-foot runway and the overhaul’s second.
For at least the next five years, it will be the sole east-west runway used almost exclusively for one purpose – arrivals in lesser-invoked “east flow.” When O’Hare’s overhaul is complete, the runway would see more departures and average 151 flights a day at current levels.
The runway also will feature a 20-minute taxi to gates.
The latest runway seems like a product of “fuzzy math,” said Darrin Thomas of the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition. FAIR advocates using two far longer diagonal runways slated for demolition to divide air traffic more evenly, but new Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans has ruled that out for safety and other reasons.
State Rep. Robert Martwick (D-Chicago), who sponsored the new law allowing O’Hare to use all its diagonal runways, also voiced concern.
“It’s pretty clear the taxpayers are not getting a good bang for their buck,” Martwick said. “It just seems silly if it’s 121 flights.”
City aviation officials strongly disagree.
“The benefits in terms of efficiency and capacity to the entire airfield outweigh the costs associated with building this runway,” Kilmer said.
When winds blow from the east and traffic moves from west to east, the runway will be among three used in “triple approaches,” Kilmer said. That should boost east-flow arrival capacity by 24 percent in good visibility and nearly 40 percent in low visibility, Kilmer said.
“Airports throughout the country and the world depend on O’Hare’s reliability during bad weather conditions, and this runway is going to help performance during unpredictable winter weather,” Kilmer said.
The added capacity means FAA controllers could use east-flow more than the current 30 percent of the time if calm winds and other factors allow it, Kilmer said. That would bring some relief to residents east of O’Hare.
How much more is uncertain.
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“Ask me in a year,” said Tony Molinaro, a spokesman for the FAA, whose controllers decide how air traffic moves. More than winds affect traffic flow, he noted.
If winds turned calm after west-flow, O’Hare would stay in west flow, Molinaro said. But if they turned calm after east flow, O’Hare could stay in east flow instead of switching to west flow as it does now, he said.
The runway’s distant location was necessary for wider bad-weather spacing of jets, officials said. Despite its taxi time, east-flow planes should arrive more quickly and their overall travel time should decrease, Kilmer said.
“The more efficient the airport is, the more the [Chicago Department of Aviation] saves in operating costs and the less expensive it is for our airline partners,” Kilmer said.
Using hundreds more planes a day than current operations, a consultant’s simulations indicated that if O’Hare traffic reaches levels predicted by the FAA for the year 2034, “gate-to-gate” time savings could average as much as 24 minutes. However, city aviation officials conceded, that savings would be less at today’s far fewer operations, could shrink more due to other events, and would not be fully realized until gate congestion is resolved — something Evans is committed to tackling.
Just in case, American Airlines is adding three minutes to all O’Hare arrival schedules, although “we’re hopeful we won’t need that extra time,” American spokeswoman Leslie Scott said.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the nation’s second-busiest in operations, also added a fifth parallel runway to the far end of its airfield — in 2006. It’s open 24 hours, is used for departures and arrivals, and absorbs about 10 percent of traffic, said Atlanta airport spokesman Reese McCranie.
The tab was $1.2 billion, but that included building over an interstate, McCranie said.
O’Hare’s biggest carriers — United Airlines and American Airlines — defended the runway and are discussing next steps with the city. The latest work was funded with airline passenger facility charges, FAA grants and general airport revenue bonds.
The new runway will help create “more opportunities to quickly and efficiently improve traffic flow,” said United Airlines spokesman Luke Punzenberger.
Others are bracing for the impact west of the airport.
“My residents are getting slammed every day with noise,” said Wood Dale Mayor Nunzio Pulice. “A whole new group of residents are going to experience something they are not used to.”
East of O’Hare, Schiller Park Mayor Barbara Piltaver fears her residents will be stuck with the airfield’s latest eight runways if airlines balk at upcoming work.
“I don’t see how this is a great investment if it’s not going to absorb that much of the traffic,” Piltaver said.
“They are killing a couple of towns, and ours is one of them,” Piltaver added. “I would hope that it would at least balance things out, but not at those numbers.”