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O’Hare night flight shakeup debuts Wednesday through Dec. 25

An American Airlines plane prepares to land at O'Hare International Airport from the east over Chicago. | Tim Boyle/For Sun-Times Media

The biggest official shakeup to O’Hare Airport night flights in nearly 20 years debuts late Wednesday with the launch of a plan aimed at more evenly distributing overnight jet noise.

Starting Wednesday evening, night runways will be rotated every week, over a 12-week cycle, as part of a six-month test due to end Christmas morning.

The move should give some Northwest Side Chicagoans, as well as suburbanites west of O’Hare, a temporary respite from heavy jet traffic at night. They should be able to plan, with some certainty, undisturbed late-night outdoor parties and get a sound night’s sleep on certain weeks from as early as 10:30 p.m. through 5:30 a.m.

Some northwest suburbs are not thrilled. Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, Hoffman Estates, Palatine and Rolling Meadows voted against the deal, fearing it would bring more night traffic.

Palatine Councilman Tim Millar charged Tuesday that the plan favored Chicago at the expense of northwest suburbs like Palatine that will be hit the most. Those suburbs are due to see night traffic at least five of the 12 rotating weeks from diagonal runway 14R-32L, which eventually is due for closure.

“The idea is that the rotation would be balanced. This is not balanced,” Millar said.

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans proposed the rotation idea last year after the massive jump in jet noise complaints, including in Chicago, that followed O’Hare’s October 2013 change in flight paths.

That switch was part of an $8.7 billion overhaul that gradually is shifting O’Hare from heavy reliance on diagonal runways aimed at suburbs to east-west parallel runways aimed at Chicago to the east and Bensenville, Wood Dale and Itasca to the west.

Areas east and west of O’Hare — including Chicago’s 38th, 39th, 40th, 41st and 45th Wards — probably will still see heavy daytime traffic during the six-month test.

The plan will use up to two runways a night and will alternate weekly between diagonal versus east-west parallel runways and between planes moving from east-to-west versus from west-to-east. The same community should not be affected two weeks in a row, although occasional deviations are expected.

“This plan is critical to immediately reducing noise exposure for the communities most severely impacted,’’ Evans said Tuesday in a news release.

“We will continue to pursue ways to ensure that Chicago’s airports are good neighbors to residents while also remaining one of the largest economic engines of the city of Chicago,” she said.

The plan marks a sharp departure from a 1997 O’Hare “Fly Quiet” plan that relied on a handful of night runways with the least-populated flight paths. In contrast, the test plan rotates all possible existing runways, regardless of flight paths.

The sixth-month test was approved in May on a 45-5 vote of the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission.

“No” votes included that of Des Plaines Ald. Malcolm Chester, who charged that certain suburbs had suffered through jet noise for decades, with no relief, but “now that the city has an impact, they want a rotation to get it off the city.”

The Federal Aviation Administration signed off on Tuesday, allowing city officials to release a start date.

A calendar showing which runways will be used weekly through early Dec. 25 is posted at www.airportprojects.net/flyquiettest/.

At the same site, the Chicago Department of Aviation will post a survey by Wednesday night seeking ongoing input on the test plan.

Under the plan, pilots seeking different runways — due to weather or other factors — should request alternate runways at least two hours in advance of their flights.

After the test ends, all runway data and survey results will be reviewed by the aviation department, the Noise Commission and the FAA to determine “how to best move forward,” Aviation Department spokesman Owen Kilmer said.

On Tuesday, Noise Commission Chair Arlene Juracek urged citizens to file O’Hare jet noise complaints and fill out surveys during the six-month test period. The two forms have different purposes, she said.

“The ONCC takes the feedback from affected residents very seriously, and will work to address the needs of the communities most impacted by nighttime noise identified during the test period,” Juracek said.

Almost 79,000 individual residents, city and suburban, registered O’Hare noise beefs this last March alone. Last year, when jet noise complaints topped 4 million, O’Hare jet noise became a 2015 mayoral campaign issue.

To complain, residents can call 311 in the city of Chicago, 800-435-9569 in the suburbs or go to a city of Chicago Aircraft Noise Complaint site. The Fair Allocation in Runways coalition also collects complaints at chicagonoisecomplaint.com and forwards them to the city.

FAIR’s Dan Dwyer noted that the rotation plan depends on diagonal runway 14R-32L, which is due to be closed in 2018 as part of ongoing airfield changes. FAIR contends O’Hare should keep all its diagonals to ensure the most options possible. Evans has repeatedly nixed that idea.

Dwyer noted that this past May, during a heavy rainstorm, four large-bodied planes balked at FAA directions to use one diagonal due to be kept as part of the O’Hare overhaul, and they were finally directed to the longer and wider diagonal — 14R-32L — that’s due to be killed off. That incident proves 14R-32L is critical to the rotation plan, Dwyer said.

In addition, Dwyer said, FAIR hopes that whatever lessons are learned from the rotation can be applied to daytime flights in the future.