Chicago O’Hare expansion: Will it reduce delays?

Chicago officials say a bond-funded new terminal will reduce congestion on O'Hare's runways.

Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/AP
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (c.), joined by aviation officials and airline executives, leaves a news conference at O'Hare International Airport, on Friday, in Chicago. The city is planning a multi-billion-dollar effort to expand the airport that includes more gates, larger terminals and upgraded amenities.

Chicago city leaders partnered with airline officials to announce a planned $300 million upgrade at Chicago’s busy airport on Friday.

The upgrade is intended to expand O’Hare’s capacity through remodeling an existing domestic terminal into a central hub, and adding more gates.

"We are all very mindful this is a historical opportunity to get it right for O'Hare," said Ginger Evans, the aviation commissioner, at the press conference announcing the renovations.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel added that the renovation project should be completed by 2017, and will provide jobs for thousands of Chicagoans. The city expects the construction project to create around 1,250 jobs and the remodeled terminal to support up to 1,100 jobs.

O’Hare is currently the country’s second busiest airport, after Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, and according to Reuters, it is also the second busiest in the world, in terms of runway takeoffs and landings.

The $300 million dollar project will add more gates to Terminal 5, which will also see its space expand by about 25 percent. Domestic Terminal 2, meanwhile, will transform into the airport’s new central hub.

These renovations, says Mr. Emanuel, will “solidify O’Hare’s role as an international gateway and strengthen the airport’s connectivity, capacity, and efficiency,” by allowing it to handle more flights, faster, each day.

How will Chicago pay for these massive renovations?

Emanuel was keen to point out that the renovations would not require taxpayer money. Instead, a spokeswoman from Chicago’s financial division told Reuters that the city hopes to sell bonds, backed by passenger facility charges. In return, the city hopes to reap the rewards of increased prestige.

Chicago has already spent about $4.4 billion on expanding O’Hare’s runway capacity, but the airport still lacks the space to handle all of the flights that pass through it each day, leading to chronic delays.

O’Hare has long had a reputation as a troublesome airport, a reputation that Chicago hopes to quash with these attempts to modernize.

The airport’s existing expansion efforts have already helped it to move up the ranks of the world’s busiest airports, jumping from seventh position in the United States in 2014 to fourth in 2015, with passenger traffic increasing 9.8 percent.

"After years of congestion,” said the Airports Council International, “the airport is reaping the benefits of runway expansions and other capacity developments."

Both airlines stationed in Chicago, United Airlines and American Airlines, took part in Friday’s news conference, and have issued public declarations of support for the city’s decision to expand the airport.

Other airports, including the world’s sixth largest, London’s Heathrow Airport, also face expansion in order to deal with increased traffic. Heathrow hopes to conduct its own runway building project by this fall.

According to Emanuel, remodeling O’Hare is key to preserving the future of the city. By ensuring that the airport has the capacity to easily and swiftly handle the eve- growing traffic that passes through its doors each day, Chicago will cement its position as an international air traffic hub.

“This is an important step forward,” said Emanuel, reported the Chicago Sun Times. “From adding more gates and improving the international terminal, to constructing the most efficient runway system in the country, we are ensuring that O’Hare continues to be an economic driver for the city of Chicago long into the future.”

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