Chicago airport chief to leave job this summer

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Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino — a favorite of former Mayor Richard M. Daley and one of only a handful of holdovers from the Daley cabinet — has told Mayor Rahm Emanuel she will step down from her $186,576-a-year job this summer, City Hall sources said Thursday.

City and suburban homeowners seeking relief from O’Hare International Airport jet noise will undoubtedly cheer and claim credit for Andolino’s departure.

They recently demanded that she resign or be fired for what they saw as her cavalier treatment of their complaints about the barrage of noise tied to jets using O’Hare’s new east-west runways.

The reality is that Andolino had free rein under Daley, but had her wings clipped by Emanuel from the beginning.

“It’s been made about as uncomfortable as she can take it. She’s tired of it,” said a City Hall source, who asked to remain anonymous.

Yet another source noted that Emanuel retained Andolino as a favor to Daley but cut off her direct pipeline to the mayor and curbed her power to award lucrative concession contracts.

For example, HMS Host, which controls 60 percent of the food and beverage concessions at O’Hare, is operating on a month-to-month contract. So are most of the concessionaires at Midway Airport, where Emanuel grounded his privatization plan after one of only two remaining bidders left the runway.

“When you have the ability to walk in or call and get a meeting with the mayor in an hour, as she did with Daley, it’s not easy to go through three or four layers to get to Rahm. She’s still the queen at O’Hare, but it’s not the same,” the source said.

For two days, Andolino did not return repeated phone calls or emails about her plan to leave her city job by August. Late Thursday afternoon, she emailed her first response, saying only, “I’m sorry but I’m double booked today.’’

On Friday morning, Emanuel released this statement, confirming her departure: “When I took office in 2011, I asked Rosie Andolino to stay on as aviation commissioner, as she has accomplished a great deal for Chicago’s airports during her tenure. She recently informed me that after serving for 14 years at the airport and 25 with the city, she wants to step down this fall to pursue new opportunities outside of government. Chicago is grateful for her service and I wish Rosie well in her future endeavors.”

Andolino has traveled the world speaking at airport conferences. It was not known whether she has lined up another job.

The changing of the guard at O’Hare and Midway comes at a pivotal time for Emanuel.

The Fair Allocations in Runways Coalition, their local aldermen and members of Congress are miffed that Andolino has refused their requests to mitigate — or even hold a City Council hearing on — the bombardment of jet noise in neighborhoods including Sauganash, Edgebrook, Forest Glen, Norwood Park and North Park.

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., an Emanuel ally, has implored Andolino to spread out arrivals and departures among all O’Hare runways to share the pain. Andolino has refused, arguing that it would only shift the problem from one neighborhood to another.

Quigley has also urged Andolino to order a 9 p.m. start to a “fly quiet” program that shifts flight paths over expressways, forest preserves and other less populated areas between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. She has refused, calling it a scheduling nightmare.

Most recently, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis concluded that none of three hearings to gather public input on proposed O’Hare runway changes was held in areas predicted to be hit with an onslaught of heavy air traffic under the plan.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it followed the rules on legally required public hearings before approving the $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program, which has triggered skyrocketing O’Hare noise complaints. The hearings were held nine years ago, but the result of those hearings — a dramatic shift in flight paths — didn’t launch until last October.

Even noise complaints around Midway, where flight paths changed in February, have been soaring.

Andolino’s rise to the job of overseeing both day-to-day operations at O’Hare and Midway and the massive O’Hare expansion project is a classic story of Chicago clout.

A former part-time makeup artist who once served as queen of Chicago’s Columbus Day parade, she is the granddaughter of a veteran 36th Ward precinct captain and the wife of former Ald. Mark Fary (12th).

The couple’s gala 2000 wedding reception at the Hyatt Regency Hotel attracted a who’s who of Chicago politics, including Daley.

Andolino is also a former administrative assistant to Daley’s disgraced City Council floor leader, former Ald. Patrick Huels (11th), and to former Daley political enforcer and Hispanic Democratic Organization chieftain Victor Reyes.

Daley’s former patronage chief, Streets and Sanitation commissioner and two others were subsequently convicted of rigging city hiring and promotions to benefit HDO and other pro-Daley political armies.

In 2003, Daley put Andolino, then 36, in the control tower of the massive O’Hare project, even though she had no background in either construction or aviation.

Her only remotely related experience included a stint as first deputy planning commissioner, where she oversaw land acquisition for Daley’s $100 million Neighborhoods Alive plan to build police and fire stations and rode herd over the rebirth of the Brickyard Mall on the Northwest Side.

The move raised eyebrows in aviation circles, but not at City Hall, where Andolino was one of the few people around Daley with whom the mayor felt truly comfortable and turned to repeatedly for advice.

“She understands him. She understands his moods and, when he barks, she doesn’t melt,” a Daley confidant said at the time.

Then-Zoning Committee Chairman William Banks (36th), who met Andolino through her grandfather when she was just a teenager, was one of the few willing to publicly defend the move.

“Rosie has been a go-to girl who’s delivered in every role she’s been in,” Banks said at the time. “She’s immensely loyal to the mayor and an absolute bulldog when it comes to getting things done. The mayor appreciates when people do what they say they’re going to do.”

By 2009, Andolino had consolidated her power to include both the O’Hare modernization and aviation commissioner’s jobs.

In an unprecedented 11 years at the helm, Andolino has presided over a cleaner, more inviting O’Hare with far more food and shopping choices, particularly at the newly overhauled international terminal.

Under Emanuel, deals have been sealed to build a new international cargo center; attract new airlines to O’Hare and Midway; install digital signs; and double the capacity of O’Hare’s people-mover system and extend it to a rental car campus with its own “inter-modal center” and parking garage that will ease roadway congestion.

Andolino also has delivered new runways without costly overruns. But Emanuel’s plan to forge ahead with construction of a fourth new runway has run into turbulence from airlines who claim there’s not enough passenger demand to justify the expense. The project’s completion date — originally 2013 — has been pushed back to a now-uncertain 2020.

In 2011, a $155 million infusion of federal funding and concessions by the retiring Daley convinced United and American Airlines to drop their unprecedented lawsuit against the city so construction could resume on $1.17 billion in O’Hare expansion work.

Daley agreed that a new western terminal, which the airlines don’t want, would be developed only if demand requires it. City Hall also agreed to negotiate — not dictate — construction of a north runway.

The $2.23 billion in remaining O’Hare projects were to be the subject of a new round of negotiations that was supposed to begin no later than March 1, 2013.

Those talks have gone nowhere. So have the demands that Andolino do something — anything — to provide some measure of relief to noise-weary residents of Chicago’s North and Northwest Sides.

Through it all, Andolino often has publicly been quick to praise Emanuel. In prepared remarks for a luncheon address last September to the City Club of Chicago, Andolino credited or cited Emanuel 19 times. She hailed Midway as “the busiest square mile in aviation” and the O’Hare Modernization Program as “the nation’s largest airport construction project.”

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