O'Hare International Airport, long the world's busiest and expecting passenger traffic to double by 1985, is gearing up for a major $1 billion retrofit.
The result, if airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration give the green light to the plan, will be a combined modernization and expansion of the 23-year-old airport.
Passengers in the future will be served by four instead of the existing three terminals.
United Airlines, which handles one-third of all O'Hare passengers, would rebuild the present international terminal, which foreign airlines have complained is too crowded. This terminal would be linked with the two other existing terminals to form one U-shaped building.
The new international terminal would be built in the open space in the center of the "U," over the existing outdoor parking lot. It would be linked to the other passenger buildings by an automated rail system operating above ground.
Another underground transport system would whisk passengers and baggage, where necessary, to new remote gate facilities a half-mile or more from the terminals.
Airlines at O'Hare long have complained of not having enough elbow room, particularly for jumbo jets. The hope is that adding as many as 60 more gates -- almost double the present total -- at satellite facilities would ease the crowding.
Close to half of O'Hare's passengers are in Chicago only to change planes. Such constant shuffling and the new remote locations of many gates are key reasons why airlines consider the automated above- and below- ground transit system the heart of the improvement plan. Engineers are still refining the plan.
"Everything else is totally dependent on the efficacy of the people mover system," insists Robert Samson, United Airlines vice- president and chairman of the airline committee that will decide on the project.
The changes are coming just as Chicagoans are about to gain freer access to the airport. Like Cleveland and the District of Columbia, the nation's second city is extending its downtown rapid transit system to O'Hare in a major construction project slated to finish in 1982.
The airlines, city aviation department, and Landrum and Brown, a Cincinnati consulting firm, have been meeting over design plans for the new O'Hare for about a year. While much about the plan remains to be analyzed, including environmental impact, Chicago Aviation Commissioner Thomas Kapsalis vows action will be taken as soon as possible.
"We're not going to study this thing to death," he says. "The mayor [Jane Byrne] is anxious to move ahead and get things done."
But just how the airport rehabilitation will be paid for remains a major question. While the subway extension to O'Hare is largely federally funded, Mr. Kapsalis says that for the airport improvements "we're not counting on a lot of federal help."
The city had been getting about $10 million a year from Washington for airport construction, but the Reagan administration's proposed budget cuts and its plan to cut the federal development funds to the nation's largest airports makes even that small contribution of the total cost uncertain.
A more likely source of financing is a bond issue of some kind or a new locally imposed tax on airlines or passengers. Congress would have to give a specific nod to the latter plan.
Commissioner Kapsalis, expressing the hope that some "innovative" funding mechanism can be found, says, "We may in the end work out an approach where all improvements are financed by the airlines."
O'Hare was constructed in 1958 with the help of airlines-backed bond issues. Now operational costs and the bonds are paid for through a combination of revenue from airport concessions and carrier landing fees that are amongg the highest of an airport in the country.