Mayor Lori Lightfoot and a who’s-who of honchos from business, labor and politics on Thursday celebrated completion of the $6 billion airfield reconfiguration that transformed O’Hare Airport from an air traffic bottleneck into a modern airport with fewer “system-impact delays.”
The project that built four new runways, extended two others, added two new air traffic control towers and replaced intersecting runways with parallel runways took 16 years to complete after decades of controversy.
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley bit the political bullet after his own plan to build a Lake Calumet Airport turned into a nightmare.
Daley was forced to battle it out at the bargaining table and in court with noise-weary suburbs surrounding O’Hare — suburbs determined to preserve diagonal runways to soften the blow of dramatic flight path changes.
Two months before Rahm Emanuel became mayor, 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, including a far south runway that was supposed to be completed last.
Daley then agreed that a new western terminal the airlines didn’t want would be developed only if demand required it. City Hall also agreed to negotiate – not dictate – construction of a north runway.
Then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood brokered the deal that salvaged the expansion. That deal included the $155 million in new federal money, which was needed to make the numbers work for airlines squeezed by skyrocketing fuel prices.
Emanuel subsequently delivered the runway deal with the major airlines that eluded his predecessor, solidifying his own reputation as a political dealmaker. That created thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts while freeing up land for new gates, terminals and airport hotels.
On Thursday, Lightfoot did something she doesn’t normally do. She credited both of her predecessors for “making this day a reality.”
“First, thanks goes to Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose vision made this day a reality. Of course, his successor and my predecessor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And all the aviation commissioners. The head of OMP, Rosie Andolino, who is with us here today. All of the construction companies and architects. And of course the workers who literally poured their blood, sweat and tears into the work of this 16-year journey,” Lightfoot said.
The mayor harkened back to the nightmare days when O’Hare runways “intersected like a four-way traffic stop.” That triggered “massive delays” that had a “ripple effect” across the nation, forcing passengers to be delayed for hours at a time and miss their connecting flights.
“With the correcting of the runways and making them run parallel, OMP has resulted in a 64% reduction of delays over the life of the project. That’s a tremendous accomplishment,” Lightfoot said.
“With more runways and less delays, O’Hare will be well-equipped to successfully handle the rebounding passenger and long-term air traffic and well-prepared for the future redevelopment of the airport terminals, which we are also extraordinarily excited about.”
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said those who assume the O’Hare Modernization Project was smooth sailing “don’t know a damn thing about this project.”
“This was a battle almost from the start. It started in court and went on for years and years and years. And then, it moved to the halls of Congress, where I had a Senate colleague who opposed this project. He did everything he could think of to oppose this project. We took that battle to them and we succeeded,” Durbin said, without mentioning former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., by name.
Durbin noted President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure plan would earmark $25 billion to modernize the nation’s airports.
“Got any ideas? I do. That funding is gonna be the next step in modernizing O’Hare [and] terminal expansion,” Durbin said.
“So don’t put your shovels away just yet. The work on O’Hare has just begun.”
A. Bradley Mims, a deputy administrator with the Federal Aviation Administration — and a Chicago native — said city officials should take a bow for completing “one of the largest airport construction projects in the world” while “continuing to operate one of the world’s busiest airports.”
“That’s monumental,” Mims said.
“You now have an airport that operates more efficiently in good and bad weather with the ability to run triple parallel approaches when needed. Three aircraft landing at the same time on the same approach. A cleaner configuration, without intersecting runways, also protects against runway incursions.”