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Mike Badame hopes you never notice him at O’Hare Airport — it means everything is working

The operating engineer keeps the world’s 6th busiest airport running smoothly through a massive infrastructure of systems that control everything from the lights to the hot water.

Mike Badame has one of the most important jobs at O’Hare International Airport you’ve never heard of — and he aims to keep it that way.

As assistant chief operating engineer for the Chicago Department of Aviation, he’s part of a team literally keeping the lights on at the airport complex and much more. Think of the facility like a human body and engineers like Badame are its central nervous system.

“We handle all of the heating and cooling, the automation system reporting, the energy management, the water distribution and all the utilities,” said Badame, 41, who’s worked at O’Hare since 2008.

It’s the kind of essential work that quietly hums in the background at O’Hare during all the hubbub that comes with 80 million passengers zipping in and out of 900,000 flights a year in the world’s sixth busiest airport. If Badame gets noticed, it’s likely because something’s not working correctly.

“The people working behind the walls? Nobody ever really notices us or sees us. And the fact that we’re able to operate unnoticed speaks volumes about the operations of the airport,” said Badame.

Not that it’s easy.

Consider the staggering size of the sprawling airport complex whose 7,200-acres stretches over two counties. With its four terminals, nine concourses and maze of runways, O’Hare is like a city-within-a-city.

Mike Badame working behind the scenes at at O’Hare Airport.
Mike Badame works behind the scenes Thursday at O’Hare International Airport.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Badame does most of his work in the heating and refrigeration plant and chiller plant, the ominous-looking black buildings that flank the terminals. Inside sits heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) infrastructure, including several 60,000-pound chillers and a 90-ton hot water boiler system responsible for providing space heating and hot water to the majority of the campus.

“We have around 800 million gallons of hot water in circulation, 30 million gallons of chilled water and distribute 1.5 million gallons of domestic water per day,” said Badame.

Technically he’s a stationary engineer — a passive title for a very active job that means overseeing the operation and maintenance of the utility systems in manufacturing sites and large buildings such as hospitals, offices, and universities.

On a day-to-day basis, stationary engineers troubleshoot these massive systems that may be malfunctioning and focus on something called predictive maintenance, which means monitoring equipment during normal operation to reduce the likelihood of failures. In the tech-heavy era of the networked “smart” building, more systems are being automated, which means Badame is increasingly writing or altering the code for Direct Digital Control (DDC) systems based on his real-world experience.

The $8.5 billion O’Hare Modernization Project has added a degree of difficulty. The project calls for the demolition of the international terminal in order to construct a new global terminal, as well as upgrades and renovations to others. By the time the plan is completed in 2028, it will balloon the airport’s terminal square footage by 60% and add 25 gates.

Since there’s no such thing as a day off at O’Hare, Badame’s team must juggle the effects of the new capital projects while maintaining normal day-to-day operations.

“The biggest struggle for us is doing these large scale equipment replacements without interrupting the distribution of utilities and impacting the traveling public in a 24/7 facility,” said Badame. “It’s like a new airport within an airport,”

It might sound like intimidating work, but for Badame, it’s second nature.

As a kid growing up on the Northwest Side, he was constantly tinkering with electronics and toys, disassembling them to find out how they work. Later, he moved on to more advanced things like computer systems and vehicles.

When he first learned exactly what an operating engineer was, he says he felt a “deep connection” to the profession.

Mike Badame at O’Hare Airport
As a kid growing up on the Northwest Side, Mike Badame took his toys apart to learn how they work. Now, he’s moved on to more complex systems, like O’Hare Airport’s heating and cooling infrastructure.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“When I found out there was an actual field that was tied to those types of capabilities, that excited me a lot,” he said.

Badame later earned an associate’s degree in stationary engineering at Triton College in River Grove, a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology and management from Illinois Institute of Technology and completed his apprenticeship through IUOE Local 399 in 2006.

These days he’s also passing on his knowledge to the next generation by working as an adjunct instructor at his union’s training center in Chinatown. One of his most important lessons: Size isn’t everything.

“I try to teach them to not be intimidated by any system no matter how big it is,” he said.