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American Airlines’ O’Hare gate expansion cleared for takeoff

American Airlines jet at O'Hare Airport

Getty Images file photo

American Airlines’ $75 million plan to add five new gates at O’Hare Airport was cleared for takeoff Wednesday, marking the first domestic gate expansion in nearly 30 years.

New restrooms, concessions and waiting areas will accompany the extension to Terminal 3, bankrolled by American, that will allow O’Hare’s second-largest carrier to increase capacity, improve on-time performance and use smaller jets with seating for 75 passengers to serve the regional and Midwest markets.

“There are lots of places we’d love to fly to that we can’t now because we’re gate-constrained. There are too many [possible destinations] to count. Midwest. Non-Midwest. Our network planning folks will look. I’m sure they’ve got a dream list of places,” Billy Glunz, American’s director of government affairs, said after a vote Wednesday by the City Council’s Aviation Committee.

“It’s a good thing for the travelers because, when it’s open, we’ll have more options. It’ll allow for greater efficiency at the airport. New destinations on a great product. The plane we’re planning to fly out is a fantastic product, and we’ll have more destinations and bring more people into Chicago and continue with the mayor’s vision to grow the tourism industry in Chicago.”

If Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans has her way, the new gates will be the first of many at O’Hare.

General Counsel Jessica Sampson said gate expansion talks are underway with all of the major airlines and “everything is on the table,” including the new western terminal that former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s O’Hare expansion plan once envisioned.

“This is the short-term plan for new gates, but we’re currently thinking through the long-term capital plan. It’s something the commissioner is working on. It’s many years out. That’s something still to be determined,” Sampson said.

Aviation Department spokesman Owen Kilmer said the $1.3 billion deal to build a new runway at O’Hare opened the door to gate expansion.

“We’re moving what the commissioner calls the girdle, the runway around the terminals, and moving it further out west. That provides a lot more space for real estate development and other terminal enhancements,” Kilmer said.

A shortage of gates at O’Hare has long been blamed for some of longest flight delays among big-city airports.

Daley’s original O’Hare modernization plan would have added more gates to existing terminals and built a new western terminal with 50 gates.

It never happened, in part, because United and American didn’t want the competition.

Soon after being appointed last summer, Evans declared gate expansion a top priority to accommodate increased capacity created by new runways already built as part of a $10 billion expansion.

The runway deal provided the vehicle because it will remove an old diagonal runway and taxiway system that’s blocking development on the north side of O’Hare, paving the way for “different layouts for concourses” and construction of new terminals.

Evans has called the new land pivotal to convincing United and American to stop fearing competition and start embracing it. The city can now put on the table plans to let the two flagship carriers add gates to their existing facilities. No longer is the city simply talking about building gates for “somebody else,” the commissioner has said.

On Wednesday, Glunz made it clear that the city’s pitch for new gates is working and that five new gates is only a starting point.

“We would love to continue to grow in Chicago. We would love to see more [gates]. We’ve said that. Gates are an issue at the airport that we’re working with the city on. . . . The opportunity to grow” is now here, he said.