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O’Hare named ‘best-connected’ U.S. airport; Emanuel hopes it continues

United and American jets at O'Hare

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday was touting the number of connecting domestic flights offered at O'Hare — the most of any U.S. airport — and continuing to beat the drum for a planned expansion of the facility. | AP file photo

The $8.7 billion expansion of O’Hare Airport already is cleared for take-off, thanks to higher terminals rents and landing fees that will bankroll the $4 billion borrowing authorized by the City Council to get the project started.

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel is taking no chances.

On Tuesday, the lame-duck mayor joined formerly warring executives from United and American airlines to announce O’Hare has been named the nation’s “best-connected” airport for 2018 and the second-best connected airport in the world, behind London’s Heathrow Airport.

Implied — and also clearly stated — was Emanuel’s argument that to keep the progress going, his successor must forge ahead with the massive project without hesitation.

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

The massive, multi-year makeover also calls for dozens of new gates and additional concourses. O’Hare would become the first so-called “global alliance hub” in the nation; it will allow domestic airlines and the international carriers with which those domestic airlines partner to be located in the same terminal.

No longer would passengers connecting to international flights endure the delay and inconvenience riding the O’Hare People Mover elevated train to the Terminal 5, the international terminal.

“If you want to have a future, you have to invest in that future. Denial is not a long-term strategy. These investments have to move forward if Chicago’s gonna move forward,” the mayor said.

“Today is a recognition — not just this year, but the last three years. And our investment in our runway, our investments in our terminal, our investment in the one and only global alliance terminal and also an express rail service ensures that Chicago not only seeks a future, but will secure that future.”

It’s the third straight year that O’Hare has won the title as No. 1 in the country for domestic connections, overtaking Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York.

It’s not just the number of connecting flights that O’Hare offers as measured against the top 200 airports in the world. It’s the number of connections possible within a specific time frame that matters.

“On the busiest days this past year, O’Hare had more than 81,000 possible connections within a three-hour window,” said Mark Mattio, OAG’s head of sales for the Americas.

“This level of connectivity creates a boundary-less world for travelers and positively impacts business, consumers and tourism all around the world. Chicago is truly a mega-hub location. This success doesn’t happen easily. It is a testament to the city’s work to continually expand the airport’s terminals, attract new airline services, increase capacity and develop new routes which have made O’Hare one of the premier airports in the world.”

Earlier this year, American Airlines was alone among airlines in objecting to the new lease agreements because of the five additional gates that Emanuel has awarded to hometown United Airlines, American’s arch-rival.

But American ultimately signed on after the city made a hazy promise to speed construction of three common-use gates that favor American because they’re located at the end of an American concourse.

On Tuesday, Emanuel joked about the peacemaking role he played between the two rivals that has him going into the solemn Jewish Day of Atonement known as Yom Kippur with a running start.

“As we pray for … forgiveness and to start our new year fresh, I go into this with a tailwind knowing that I brought American and United together in a moment of friendship that was unique. Look at that. The Jewish holiday is complete for me,” Emanuel said.

“And in another great Jewish tradition, you guys laughed for about a minute of friendship without giving each other barbs. So, I congratulate both of you. ‘Five gates here. We need more gates.’ There it is. We’re back to [that bickering]. We could have used that about five months ago.”