CHICAGO – Ten years into its $8 billion airfield overhaul, O’Hare International Airport has opened a second new runway that officials say will begin to ease the hub airport’s congestion and eliminate the flight delays that have a ripple effect across the country.
Planes started landing and taking off Thursday morning on the 10,800-foot runway in the southern half of the airport’s footprint.
That marks the end of the first phase of the O’Hare Modernization Program, a massive project that aims to address the crippling delays and maintain the airport’s status as a key crossroads in the nation’s transportation architecture.
It will improve the efficiency of the national aviation system from coast to coast, Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said Thursday at the opening.
The question now is how soon travelers will start to notice.
O’Hare still ranks at or near the bottom in on-time departures. Chicago Department of Aviation officials say the runway will allow for nearly 90,000 additional flights a year and reduce delays by half.
O’Hare’s been bottled up for so long. This could lead to some exciting things, some new services, said Joseph Schwieterman, Chicago-based transportation researcher at DePaul University.
Under the project, which began in 2003, the airfield’s crisscrossing runways will be reconfigured into a parallel layout that officials say would allow more aircraft to take off and land.
The lattice network of runways was conceived to allow pilots to take off and land under different crosswind patterns; aircraft technology has largely eliminated that need.
When the project is complete, O’Hare will have six parallel and two crosswind runways.
The major expansion pieces yet to be completed are two parallel runways, a control tower and an extension to an existing runway. One of those new runways and the control tower are under construction, but the city’s airline partners in the mega-project – American and United – have not been able to agree on how to divvy up the funding of $2.3 billion worth of work still needed to build the final runway and extension.
The new runway includes lighting and navigational technology that will allow more planes to land and take off in poor weather and with reduced visibility. During good weather, up to 150 planes an hour will be able to take off from the runway, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Chronic flight delays at O’Hare, where about half of travelers are just transiting, sent paralyzing shockwaves throughout the nation’s air system in the late 1990s.
It was a sign that you were an experienced traveler if you said you were trying to avoid O’Hare, Schwieterman said.
You could hardly mention O’Hare without somebody pulling out a horror story, he said. And that was well deserved.
Of the nation’s 29 busiest airports, O’Hare ranked dead last in on-time departures throughout the first seven months of this year, with only about 67 percent of flights taking off on schedule, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data.
That represents a slip of three places in the rankings over the same period a year earlier, when O’Hare’s on-time rate was 77 percent.