O’Hare improvement plan prepared for takeoff — and right on time

If Chicago is to consider itself a world-class city, having a travel-friendly, functional, showcase international airport is key.

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Rendering of the interior of a new “global terminal” planned at O’Hare International Airport.

A rendering of the new “global terminal” that will replace the current Terminal 2 at O’Hare International Airport.

Studio Gang

Plans to build a new $7 billion Terminal 2 at O’Hare Airport took a big step forward last week — a sign that’s potentially good for Chicago and the world’s air travelers.

The current domestic terminal, built in the 1960s, would be razed and replaced with a larger facility built for international flights as well.

And rather than being a pass-through between travel points, officials promise the new global terminal will be a destination itself, designed to feel like a neighborhood with shops, restaurants and a central space for gathering, live music and events.

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That’s quite a change from the current workaday Terminal 2, but this is where major airports are headed these days.

And the multibillion-dollar construction project is a potential boon for Chicago on the jobs and economic front.

Change is needed. This is an important move for Chicago to make.

Bigger and hopefully better

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other officials announced the latest developments in the terminal modernization plan last Monday at O’Hare.

The project got the green light after a four-year Federal Aviation Administration environmental impact study found the effort would have no significant negative impact on its surroundings or O’Hare’s architecture.

“Chicago’s transportation infrastructure is what makes this city an economic powerhouse of global importance,” Buttigieg said.

“Now, as we prepare to break ground on O’Hare’s newest terminal, Chicago and this entire region will be positioned to grow and create good-paying jobs through the benefits of first-rate infrastructure, beginning with the construction project itself,” he said.

From a functional standpoint, we like the idea that domestic and international flights will be combined in the new terminal.

That means many travelers looking to make those connections will no longer have to catch the People Mover to or from Terminal 5, which services international flights — a timesaver for sure.

At 2.2 million square feet, the new terminal’s space would rival that of the 60-story Chase Tower downtown and would be almost twice the size of the current facility.

With all that space, we share the concerns expressed by the organization Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago that the new terminal’s escalator-rich design — as shown in the original renderings made public in 2019 — could provide unnecessary barriers and pinch points for those with mobility issues.

“If Chicago wants the new global terminal to be a statement about Chicago to the world, while allowing global and domestic tourists to experience the culture, traditions and diversity of Chicago, that should include incorporating universal design principles so that people understand no one is left out in Chicago,” Access Living’s transportation policy analyst Laura Saltzman told us.

All that space is room enough to do a lot of good, if designed correctly. And there’s time enough between now and the start of construction in 2026 to make sure that happens.

Construction would begin with a pair of new satellite concourses that will ultimately link to the new terminal. The concourses will provide about 1.3 million square feet of gate and amenity space.

The new construction will “dramatically expand the airport’s ability to accommodate aircraft of all sizes,” Lightfoot said. “This is a big deal for us.”

Project prepared for takeoff

Terminal 2 demolition is set to start in 2026, and the new global facility will be operating in 2030, officials said.

The new global terminal and concourses are part of a larger $12.1 billion O’Hare 21 capital improvement plan announced in 2019 under Mayor Rahm Emanuel that’s bringing new runways and access to the airport from the west.

Compared with the better airports of the world, such as Changi in Singapore — or even New York’s recently revamped LaGuardia — O’Hare falls behind. It’s time to catch up.

If Chicago is to consider itself a world-class city, having a travel-friendly, functional, showcase international airport is key. Here’s to the project taking flight.

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