O’Hare International Airport has been racking up the worst airplane taxi times among the nation’s five busiest airports just as it prepares to launch a new runway that will feature the airfield’s longest ride to the gates.
On average, it should take 20 minutes to maneuver the winding route to the terminals from O’Hare’s $516 million southernmost runway, set to debut Oct. 15, experts estimate.
Passengers beware: Bathroom breaks normally aren’t allowed during taxiing or landing.
The typical trip will be about 4 minutes longer than from O’Hare’s northernmost runway, which currently carries the longest taxi route on the airfield, Federal Aviation Administration consultants estimated in a recent re-evaluation of O’Hare’s ongoing overhaul.
“For those of us who land on the north runway and groan now, the south runway will become the one that makes us all roll our eyes and go, ‘Swell,’” said United Airlines pilot Dan Swanson.
“[Passengers] will be looking at their watches, worried about their connections and wondering about the people picking them up.”
The prospect of such a long taxi emerges amid other tarmac tensions: O’Hare posted the worst taxi times, taxi delays and gate delays among the nation’s five busiest airports in the most recent 12 months of data available — through May 2015, an analysis by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association indicates.
Expand that to the nation’s 10 busiest airports, and O’Hare is worst in taxi-in times, taxi-in delays, and gate delays; second-worst in taxi-out delays; and third-worst in taxi-out times.
Meanwhile, O’Hare has struggled with overall flight delays even among the 29 largest U.S. airports. There, U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics indicate, O’Hare’s year-to-date on-time departure rate of 70.07 percent is dead last and its on-time arrival rate of 72.42 percent is second to last.
Overall performance in 2014 dipped below the last full year before overhaul construction started, when officials said O’Hare delays were clogging the national air traffic system. However, 2014 packed a brutal “Chiberia” winter, bringing numerous weather-related flight problems.
Some wonder when O’Hare’s $8.7 billion switch to a mostly east-west parallel runway system will deliver on promises to reduce delays in all kinds of weather. The prospect of a new, unusually long taxi — up to 5.25 miles of pathways would have to be cleared in snowy weather — does little to assuage those concerns, although the FAA anticipates taxi times will improve with the new runway.
“We’ve spent billions and we haven’t improved any measure of efficiency,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). His district includes parts of Chicago and suburbs hit especially hard by jet noise from O’Hare’s new east-west parallel runways.
Designers “were thinking about one aspect of O’Hare’s efficiency — more runways — and didn’t include other things. It is an integrated system,” Quigley said.
Yet another east-west parallel runway as well as a runway extension are planned, although airlines have yet to agree to help bankroll that $2.32 billion in work. Before funding is discussed, Quigley said, the city should reassess the O’Hare Modernization Program.
New Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans is willing to do that, said her spokesman, Owen Kilmer. Evans “will be examining every option to make O’Hare’s airfield more efficient,” Kilmer said.
A consultant for the Suburban O’Hare Commission, which has fought O’Hare noise, notes that O’Hare’s 2014 operations fell far short of overhaul projections. JDA Aviation Technology Solutions contends O’Hare needs more gates to reduce delays — not more runways. Evans says O’Hare needs both, particularly in peak hours.
The new runway initially is expected to be used almost exclusively in “east flow,” and only for arrivals. In that function, runway 10R should provide a needed boost to east flow arrival rates in good and bad weather, Kilmer said.
That improvement will allow “east flow” to be used more than the 30 percent of the year consultants estimated, officials say. East flow departure rates should improve too, Kilmer said.
Over the most recent 12 months, Kilmer cautioned, O’Hare has been hampered by a large number of bad-weather operations; disruptions caused by a Sept. 26 fire in an Aurora FAA facility; airline systemwide outages; and a new FAA “converging runway” safety rule that has impeded performance.
“Taxi time is only one component of the total traveler experience,” Kilmer added in an emailed statement. “Runway 10R will significantly enhance the airfield capacity and improve on-time performance overall. Passengers would much rather spend a few extra minutes taxiing on the airfield than holding in the air, waiting for clearance.”
Across the airfield, FAA consultants predict, the south runway and other changes should cut average taxi-in times by 1 minute and taxi-out times by almost 3 minutes.
Taxiing should be “free-flowing” because most taxiing planes will not have to wait for other aircraft to land or depart runways, FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said.
American Airlines gates are among the farthest from the runway’s touchdown point. American officials have calculated 10R will add 3 to 5 minutes in taxi time to some arrivals, spokeswoman Leslie Scott said, so “we have made accommodations for that in our schedule.”
United Airlines wants to see the new runway in action to measure its taxi times, “but that won’t be too pertinent to our schedules, as they are based on airport averages,” said United spokesman Charles Hobart.
Swanson, the United pilot, cautioned that “free-flowing” is a matter of “semantics.” After landing on 10R, he said he would stop before crossing one active and another inactive runway unless he heard a long list of route clearances in advance.
If the next runway, 9C-27C, is ever built, FAA consultants predict it will shave 40 seconds off the airfield’s average taxi-out, but add almost a minute and a half to the average taxi-in.
With each new east-west parallel runway, said Darrin Thomas, a leader of the Fair Allocation in Runways citizen coalition, “all they are doing is putting more obstructions in play. When you have those parallel runways, you can’t just jog across them.”
Shorter taxis from diagonal runways are another reason to spare two such runways from demolition, said Thomas. FAIR favors using diagonals to spread jet noise across neighborhoods more evenly; Evans has ruled out that idea, citing new FAA safety rules and other reasons.
“By having more parallel runways, you gain more efficiency in being able to land planes, but they still have to be able to arrive at the terminal,” Thomas said. “And that’s where they are cutting O’Hare off at the knees.”
With diagonal runways, “when planes landed, they were right by the terminal,” said one retired O’Hare air traffic controller who asked to remain anonymous.
“Now, they are miles from the terminal. . . . They created a mess on the ground.”
A common midsize jetliner, the MD-80, will burn about $312 in fuel taxiing from runway 10R, estimates Megan Ryerson, assistant professor of transportation planning and aviation system researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s about $60 more — and nearly 200 more pounds of fuel — than needed for the current longest taxi-in from the north runway, Ryerson said.
However, Ryerson cautioned, leaving planes circling in the air uses three times more fuel per minute than taxiing-in.
Christopher Grant, an associate dean at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach campus, said the new runway’s taxi route is long and circuitous, but that’s typical when an airport locked into a specific footprint adds runways.
“You’re not starting with a blank slate,” Grant said.
This story is part of an ongoing series by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association.