Aviation commissioner urges jet noise critics to get behind her plans

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The city’s aviation commissioner Friday urged critics not to spend another six months or a year “arguing” about jet noise solutions and instead get behind her “ambitious” plan to mitigate the impact of new O’Hare flight paths.

The sell-job didn’t convince leaders of the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition, who insisted they would continue to fight to keep open two diagonal runways, slated for closure, that they contend can be used to spread out O’Hare traffic more evenly.

“We can’t accept that this is the end of the story,’’ FAIR leader Colleen Mulcrone told Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans during a closed-door meeting Friday night.

“The impact this has on people who live under planes hour after hour, day after day, deserves the opportunity for more discussion,” Mulcrone said.

Despite voluminous documents released Friday by Evans outlining her reasoning for forging ahead with decommissioning two diagonal runways, as planned for more than a decade, U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley, Jan Schakowsky and Tammy Duckworth released a statement late Friday urging that the two diagonal runways aimed at suburbs north and south of the airport remain open.

“We believe the diagonal runways remain necessary for efficiency, safety and noise abatement,’’ the joint statement said. “Leaving the diagonal runways open would allow us to maintain the most potential options to configure the airport and help distribute the noise burden.”

The noise controversy erupted after a dramatic shift in O’Hare flight paths that began in October 2013.

Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson was more pragmatic Friday. Rotating runways at night “will disperse traffic more evenly around the airport instead of concentrating it in one area,’’ Johnson said. “Half a loaf is better than no loaf.”

In documents and in words, Evans on Friday rejected keeping two diagonals, saying they conflicted with Midway airspace, would cost $10 million each to maintain and would create a safety and “confusion risk” by intersecting with other runways.

Keeping one of them, 14R-32L, would mean a tunnel would need to be built under it if O’Hare ever fulfills its plan to provide western access to the airport, documents indicated. Keeping the other, 14L-32R, would leave O’Hare with a dangerous “runway incursion hotspot” where planes can converge, Evans said.

Instead, Evans urged critics to support her plan to spread around jet noise only at night, when she said it has its most severe impact, by rotating four or five pairs of one arrival and one departure runway each — roughly every week, for four or five weeks.

“This is a very ambitious plan,’’ Evans told FAIR members, legislative representatives and suburban officials during a meeting that media was only allowed to access by call-in. “Everybody should take a moment to acknowledge and recognize that this is a significant step forward. . . . ”

“Our commitment to you is to pursue it as vigorously as possible but I must tell you, we must move forward. . . . We can spend another six months or another 12 months arguing about what we should do. It’s not going to provide noise relief to people.’’

However, the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration still must vet the plan. And some questioned if some of Evans’ choices for the sole night departure runways were viable options for all of O’Hare’s traffic.

One aviation modeling expert who asked for anonymity noted that three of five runways that Evans would put in the departure rotation are too short to handle all the takeoffs of heavier, long-range aircraft loaded down with fuel. One of them in particular, 4L, is an especially short 7,500-foot runway that can only be used to depart about 70 percent of typical O’Hare planes, the expert estimated.

Even FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro conceded that “In general, pilots of widebody aircraft always prefer using longer runways for departures. This gives them the largest safety buffer for their departures. Pilots will always choose the safest option.”

Plus, air traffic controllers usually trust a pilot’s judgment and let them shake off a designated runway if they view it as necessary, O’Hare experts have told the noise commission.

Aviation department spokesman Owen Kilmer cautioned that the rotation suggestions could change because the plan is “an ongoing process” with the end goal “to spread out the noise” at night.

By day, relief would come mostly in a pledge to try to find funding to insulate about 200 homes close to runways due for an average of 70 decibels of noise — even higher than the 65 decibels that currently qualifies homes for free noise insulation.

Kilmer said some of those homes were insulated years ago, but Evans hopes to find money for new insulation as products have improved since the original installation.

Bensenville officials have said some of their residents live closer to two runways than those in any other community. Some have come to noise commission meetings, begging the city to “relocate” them and put them out of their misery.

Kilmer said Evans became convinced Bensenville needed re-insulation after visiting its streets personally. “Being new to the city, she was shocked” at the jet noise there, Kilmer said.

Contributing: Becky Schlikerman

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