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O’Hare overhaul begins with kickoff of international terminal expansion

A rendering of O'Hare Airport's Terminal 5 after the expansion project.

A rendering of O'Hare Airport's Terminal 5 after the expansion project. | Chicago Department of Aviation

The $8.7 billion O’Hare Airport expansion project was supposed to be the fund-raising, job-and-contract-generating ace in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pocket as he campaigned for a third term.

Instead, it’s more like Emanuel’s last hurrah. Chicago’s next mayor will be in the cockpit when the project akin to a giant aircraft lands.

On Wednesday, Emanuel joined airline executives at a groundbreaking ceremony for the first big chunk of his deftly crafted plan to remake O’Hare: a $1.2 billion expansion of the airport’s 25-year-old international terminal.

“Back then, we used to fly to 30 international destinations. Today, Chicago flies to 75,” Emanuel told the crowd of VIP’s.

“O’Hare Airport is the best-connected in the United States of America and No. 2 in the world. It’s the only airport in the United States of America that can get to all six continents. We’re working on Antarctica and I have 75 days to get it done.”

By 2021, the new international terminal will have 10 new gates, 350,000 more square feet, 15 new locations for restaurants and retail, and an expanded checkpoint with six new security lanes to speed passenger processing.

That will pave the way for Delta Airlines to shift its operations from Terminal 2 to the renovated international terminal, where its so-called SkyTeam alliance partners already are located.

The following year, a baggage handling system that’s as old as the terminal itself is slated to be replaced by a state-of-the-art system that includes baggage ID technology.

Over time, there’ll be a new parking garage, an adjacent hotel and roadway improvements — though none of those projects have been designed or approved by the airlines that pay the bills.

Ultimately, the game of musical gates calls for United and American Airlines, O’Hare’s two largest carriers, to shift their international flights out of the international terminal.

The mayor’s plan calls for demolishing Terminal 2 and replacing it with a new “global terminal” accepting both domestic and international flights and shared by United and American.

When that project is completed by 2028, O’Hare would become the nation’s first “global alliance hub,” with domestic airlines and their international carrier partners all in the same terminal.

“When we do that, we’re adding 25 new gates and the ability to keep adding new gates as Chicago continues to be, and O’Hare continues to be, the economic engine that allows us to play on the global stage. Not just a world-class city, but a city with a global presence and a global reach,” the mayor said.

“You’ll be able to get to any city, any market, any time of day, any day of the week.”

Last year, Emanuel hammered out airline use and lease agreements that laid the groundwork for the expansion.

He sided with hometown United, O’Hare’s flagship carrier, in a gate dispute with American that threatened to delay or even derail the project.

American had accused Emanuel of favoring its arch-rival by awarding United five additional gates.

American Airlines threatened legal action that could have grounded the expansion plan, signing on only after the city made a hazy promise to speed construction of three common-use gates that favor American.

On Wednesday, there were no more jokes about the peacemaking role the mayor played between the two rivals. There were only smiles about the sky’s-the-limit possibilities for O’Hare, even though Emanuel won’t be at the controls when it happens.

“It used to be a competition between three airlines. Still is, slightly. But today, it’s a competition between Chicago, London, Paris, Beijing and Berlin. And if you want that future, you have to invest in that future. You can’t sit and rest on your laurels,” Emanuel said.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was so excited about the groundbreaking, he put on a pilot’s hat to celebrate.

“This whole project came together because of the fact that everyone understood the value of an airport in this world. It is a competitive space beyond all others,” Munoz said.

“We get to work in so many different places around the world. And it makes such a difference when a community gets it.”

Franco Tedeschi, American’s vice-president for operations, noted O’Hare’s second-largest carrier opened five new gates last year and soon will add Athens to its expanding list of international destinations.

“As we think about opening the doors to the city and, therefore, to the world, how appropriate is it that we continue to expand and grow and make it the place that’s correct from an arrival experience” standpoint? Tedeschi said.

MORE ABOUT O’HARE

O’Hare once again nation’s busiest airport
O’Hare named ‘best-connected’ U.S. airport
City Council approves $8.5 billion O’Hare expansion
City unveils design proposals for new “global terminal”