Federal jet traffic forecasts used to justify an $8.7 billion O’Hare International Airport expansion, which sent noise complaints soaring, have fallen so short of projections that O’Hare won’t need more runways until at least 2034, experts hired by the Suburban O’Hare Commission contended Wednesday.
Rather than adding and expanding even more runways, as planned, O’Hare should add 15 to 20 more gates to reduce congestion on the ground, experts said in one of a series of reports released to suburban mayors.
“Today, there’s a need to spend money on gates, not runways,” said Joe Del Balzo, founder of JDA Aviation Technology Solutions, which was charged by the Suburban O’Hare Commission with analyzing some of the thorniest issues surrounding O’Hare’s massive overhaul.
“Based on today’s traffic, there’s no need to rush to build an additional runway,” he said. “Today’s configuration can carry O’Hare through to 2034.”
JDA also contended that two diagonal runways scheduled for demolition under the O’Hare Modernization Program should be saved for use in certain wind conditions, as overflow holding areas or VIP runways, and to help reduce the heavy concentration of traffic over areas east and west of the airport now howling about jet noise.
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U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who has been pushing various routes to jet noise relief, said the analysis raised “important questions about the direction of O’Hare Modernization Program and validate the serious concerns about noise and air traffic that many of my constituents and I share.”
The recommendations come in the wake of an Illinois bill passed over the weekend that allows, but does not require, the city of Chicago to keep two diagonal runways open, including one scheduled for an August decommissioning.
Another legislative deal has resulted in city officials agreeing to ask the Federal Aviation Administration to hold off closing any diagonal runways until it meets at least three times with the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition and holds four public meetings about its predicted impact of the October opening of another east-west parallel runway.
FAIR has been hammering Mayor Rahm Emanuel about soaring jet noise since O’Hare switched to a predominant reliance on east-west parallel runways rather than diagonal ones in October 2013. The move created a dramatic change in flight paths, bombarding Chicagoans east of the O’Hare, as well as Bensenville and Wood Dale residents west of the airport, with a heavy stream of jet traffic.
JDA reports released Wednesday also contended that the FAA “noise contour” used to determine who qualifies for free sound insulation deeply underestimated the impact of the new flight paths, used “flawed” metrics and was not based on “international scientific standards.’’
In fact, the Chicago Sun-Times recently found that more than 95 percent of Chicagoans who complained to a FAIR-created website in March that O’Hare jets interrupted their sleep lived outside the “noise contour” and are not currently entitled to free sound insulation.
Information presented by Del Balzo on Wednesday indicated that O’Hare’s 879,000 flights last year were about 25 percent short of the 1.094 million envisioned by 2014 and used in 2005 to justify the need for expanding the airport from six to eight runways — most of them east-west parallel runways. Given that the predictions stretched up to 15 years, they could have been as much as 85 percent off, because of the difficulty of predicting future operations, Del Balzo said.
In the past, FAA officials have blamed the recession for the failure of flight levels to meet projections.
One more east-west runway is still due to open on Oct. 15 under the plan. A second parallel runway and the extension of a third is envisioned, although airlines have yet to agree to help bankroll them.
But JDA’s report indicated that building or expanding more runways at this point will “simply increase delays to an overtaxed terminal and gate supply.’’
Del Balzo said flights have fallen so short of projections, that after the October runway’s debut, more runways won’t be needed until at least 2034.
Antonio Trani, a JDA consultant, noted that the latest FAA projections predict that O’Hare’s annual flights will actually dip by about 30,000 between 2018 and 2022, probably because of the expectation that smaller regional jets will be replaced with larger ones.
With recent O’Hare gate departure delays lasting three times longer than air delays, Del Balzo said, O’Hare is in greater need of more gates than more runways. Where to put them will be one of JDA’s next focuses, he said.
The O’Hare overhaul originally envisioned two terminal extensions, with additional gates, by this time in the construction, said attorney Joseph Karaganis, special counsel to Elk Grove Village.
“The master plan for the OMP was a combination of new runways and new terminals. That runway construction was supposed to be balanced with two terminals. The airport is out of balance,’’ Karaganis said. “You have too much runway capacity and not enough terminal capacity.”
City officials also had argued that the switch to parallel east-west runways was needed to reduce delays in all kinds of weather by minimizing dependence on intersecting runways.
But Del Balzo said he has seen indications that since the new east-west flight paths debuted in 2013, runway taxi times have increased, aborted landings have risen, on-time arrivals have decreased, and cancellations are up.
Meanwhile, O’Hare’s on-time arrival and departure rates have been naggingly low — at times the worst among the nation’s 29 busiest airports.