O’Hare leads country in flights, also delays, new aviation commissioner admits

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Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans talks with reporters about O’Hare Airport Wednesday, June 24, 2015. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

O’Hare International Airport not only leads the country in total flightsbut also in delays, the city’s new aviation commissioner bluntly conceded to a gathering Thursday at the City Club of Chicago.

The “flip side” of O’Hare reclaiming the “busiest airport” title for total 2014 operations from Atlanta is that “Chicago also leads the way in delayed flights,’’ Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said.

“This is where it’s important to remember we’re in a consumer business, and consumers have choices,” said Evans, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pick to replace Rosemarie Andolino as of June 1.

However, Evans noted at the beginning of her address, “I like to tackle big gnarly challenges.” And, she added toward the end, “I work every Sunday.”

Evans’ comments come after O’Hare repeatedly has sat near the bottom of the nation’s 29 major airports in on-time performance despite an $8.7 billion O’Hare modernization program that promised to reduce delays in all kinds of weather, based on a new east-to-west traffic flow.

Emanuel on Thursday introduced Evans to the City Club breakfast crowd by saying her task was to make O’Hare “the best airport in America.”

Evans suggested reviewing the entire basis of the 2001 modernization plan that Emanuel inherited from predecessor Richard M. Daley, especially in light of developments since then.

That includes the 2007 emergence of the Airbus 380, something Evans called “one of the most significant developments in aviation over the past decade.” The world’s largest commercial aircraft boasts a double-deck interior, high seat capacity and lower cost-per-mile seats, making it ideal for very long flights that let travelers avoid multiple stops, Evans said.

Yet, Evans said, O’Hare does not have any A380 gates, although it’s planning one. Other airports are on their “second or third round” of adding them, she said.

Evans called for more O’Hare gates and airfield improvements to reduce delays and maximize performance. She said she is looking at “eight different solutions” on reducing jet noise complaints and reading every previous study on bringing an express train to O’Hare.

Evans comes to her aviation post amid O’Hare’s ongoing shift from heavy use of diagonal runways that send traffic over the northern and southern suburbs, to large reliance on parallel runways that bring in flights from the east and send them out to the west.

The new flight paths first hit in October 2013, when most arrivals started flying over the city to enter O’Hare and departing the airport over Wood Dale and Bensenville. Jet noise complaints have skyrocketed to record levels ever since.

In her remarks to the City Club, Evans seemed to rule out keeping two diagonal runways that the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition and others contend should be used to spread out air traffic more evenly. She clearly backed adding a sixth parallel runway that has yet to be financed.

A diagonal runway originally due for decommissioning intersects with another diagonal runway and a parallel runway to form a triangle on the airfield.

“First and foremost, O’Hare’s triangular runway pattern — with runways in three directions — has to go,” Evans told the City Club. “It is inefficient, outdated and, frankly, not as safe a configuration. . . . These new parallel runways are essential for maximizing safety at our busy airports.”

However, asked after her address if she favored decommissioning two diagonal runways that a new bill would allow to stay open, Evans was measured.

“We’re evaluating some aspects of closing those runways through the summer,” Evans said. “We’ll take a position on that in late summer or early fall.”

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