United's futuristic answer to `people-lock'

For many, the new terminal offers a fantasy trip, a visual experience worthy of a George Lucas movie. For many more, it represents a fantasy of a different sort - getting aboard a plane that takes off from the world's busiest airport when it's supposed to. Such is the promise of the $500 million United Airlines terminal that opened this month at the north end of O'Hare International Airport. ``We wanted to get it operational in time for August, which is always our biggest month, and once we saw what our projections looked like, we knew we had to,'' said John Zeeman, United's executive vice-president for marketing planning. ``Otherwise, we were afraid we'd have a `people-lock' - there would be so many people trying to board airplanes that nobody, literally nobody, could get through.''

United estimates that 1.1 million people will board its planes at O'Hare during August alone, with an equal number arriving. Airline officials saw no hope that its 40 existing gates, spread over two terminals and one makeshift area, could handle the load.

The new terminal has been under construction since March 1985, and it is not yet complete. But at least the glass-covered shells have been built over its two concourses, each longer than the world's tallest building - Chicago's Sears Tower - is tall. The concourse is operational and can handle 14 aircraft.

By the end of next year, the new concourses will be equipped to process passengers and baggage onto as many as 42 waiting planes, according to James J. Hartigan, United's president and chief executive officer. What's most significant, however, is how easily planes can pass each other on the ground. ``Two Boeing 747s will be able to pass each other, going in opposite directions,'' Mr. Hartigan says. ``That means one won't have to wait for the other, and the passengers won't have to spend time in the `penalty box''' - the tarmac area where so many planes are forced to wait for berths.

That means less delay for everyone, according to United spokesman Matt Gonring. ``By October,'' Mr. Gonring says, ``we're expecting to handle 400 flights out of O'Hare each day, 400 arrivals and 400 departures. That's up from about 375 now. Until now, we've had about 100 flights per day delayed for more than 15 minutes, and about half of those delays were caused by congestion on the ground, so that means a 50 percent cut in delays.''

Perhaps as appealing, a laser-scanning system will be able to handle 480 bags a minute, compared with 70 now. Automated boarding is designed to keep customers from having to check in at the gate. Digital signage provides up-to-the-second flight information. And a roboticized inventory system is expected to deliver a part to a maintenance crew within 11 minutes.

For the traveler who groans at the thought of changing planes at O'Hare and becoming one of 60 million passengers to grapple with an airport that was originally designed for 20 million, such reductions in delay would be fantasy indeed. But it was a fantasy of a different sort that the architect saw.

``We wanted these buildings to be so much more,'' said Helmut Jahn, the controversial German who now delivers building plans from his Chicago studio. ``We wanted them to reflect the surprise, the adventure, the fantasy associated with travel.'' The glass ceilings are tinted depending on the direction of the sun. Walkways are supported by bold, keyhole-shaped trusses, about 20 feet in height. The effect is that of a long, ethereally lit passage into what appears to be infinity. The futuristic design is enhanced by a 744-foot light sculpture that adorns the ceiling above the moving sidewalk between terminals. A total of 466 colored neon tubes were programmed to provide continuously changing patterns created by California artist Michael Hayden.

A final fantasy might belong to United's competitors. The new terminal means that, by the end of 1988, the largest user of O'Hare's facilities might finally be out of their way.

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