Are O'Hare modernization talks ready for takeoff?

  • Workers continue progress on a new runway on the south side of O'Hare International Airport, set to be commissioned in 2015.

    Workers continue progress on a new runway on the south side of O'Hare International Airport, set to be commissioned in 2015. Daily Herald File Photo

Posted2/18/2013 5:15 AM

Two years ago, the buzz in the transportation world centered on the fisticuffs involving Chicago vs. United and American Airlines.

The carriers sued the city in 2011, calling its plan to complete a massive O'Hare remodeling risky and ill-conceived. It wasn't until U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood swooped in with $155 million that both sides made nice. The airlines dropped the lawsuit and everyone agreed to return to the bargaining table no later than March 1, 2013, to negotiate terms and timing of the final components of the O'Hare Modernization Program.


March 1, 2013 -- as in less than two weeks from now.

So what's up? Is the conference room booked, the PowerPoints ready and the doughnuts ordered?

Maybe. Maybe not. In fact, all parties were rather enigmatic when I asked the status of the March talks, causing what they didn't say to be most interesting to me.

"The city of Chicago remains committed to implementing the OMP and has made great progress doing so," Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Karen Pride said. "The agreement reached with the airlines in the spring of 2011 calls for negotiations to fund the remaining airfield elements of the OMP to begin no later than March 1 of this year. The Chicago Department of Aviation and the airlines continuously discuss infrastructure developments at O'Hare, including OMP."

United officials confirmed they were "in continuous discussions with the city about developments at O'Hare."

An American Airlines spokeswoman said the carrier "can't say what posture we are in at this point in time. We are only in February." (American also is in flux as it simultaneously deals with bankruptcy proceedings and a proposed merger with US Airways.)

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To recap, the O'Hare Modernization Program envisions six parallel runways that expedite air traffic significantly compared to the current crisscross layout. So far, one new runway was completed in 2008 along with a runway extension and a second new runway that will be commissioned this fall. A third new runway on the far south end of the airport will be commissioned in 2015. Another significant and controversial component of the OMP is a western terminal.

Here's what I see as the likely sticking points.

The carriers will oppose adding a fourth new runway and extending another runway on the north side of O'Hare, arguing that the additions are expensive and unneeded currently. And they really hate the idea of a western terminal, since it could be used by competing airlines.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, however, is on an infrastructure tear and ruffled feathers in March 2012, saying "our goal is to reduce delays at O'Hare by 80 percent. ... I call on the airlines to begin planning with us today, so we can add a fourth and final runway."

The upcoming March deadline also caught the eyes of Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk. The Springfield Democrat and Highland Park Republican wrote to US Airways CEO Doug Parker and American CEO Thomas Horton last week, indicating they wouldn't be happy with delays to a project expected to create 195,000 jobs.


"It is essential that the proposed merger between American Airlines and US Airways does not delay negotiations with the city of Chicago on the final phase of the OMP that are slated to begin no later than March 1 of this year," the letter stated.

Here's another evolving aspect of this old/new fight. How will the carriers' relationship with Emanuel differ from the one with Mayor Richard M. Daley? Some speculate that if you want the federal government to approve your merger request you might want to avoid suing someone as close to President Obama as Emanuel, his former chief of staff.

In the short term, Northwestern University professor and aviation expert Aaron Gellman predicts "the airlines will do whatever they can do to put everything on hold. For one thing, there's a lot of turmoil with the American Airlines/US Airways merger today, which I think will provide at least an excuse, if not reason for delaying the decision-making."

Once negotiations begin in earnest, over the final phase of the OMP, DuPage County will be watching to see what happens with its economic development holy grail -- the western terminal.

DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin, who met with Emanuel recently, thinks the mayor's an ally on this subject. "I know he wants a western terminal and I know he wants western access," Cronin said.

Many have considered the western terminal to be dead in the water but Cronin contends "it's not a question of if, it's a question of when."

Gellman also thinks there's life in the project.

"Now, whether it's built as a result of a March meeting this year, I don't know," he said. "For one thing, there's a lot of turmoil with the American/US Airways merger. In the end, it will be built and it can be built and it can be financed and there can be ways to get it done."

What do you think? Drop me a line at

Traffic alert

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Your voice

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Here's what Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson had to say. "Unfortunately, we had to cancel this flight due to weather. While we understand this was an inconvenience, the safety of our customers is always our top priority. We sent Mr. Lucas an email and left a voice mail to let him know about the change to his flight. When we have to cancel a flight due to weather, customers are offered the following options: we rebook them on the next available Spirit flight; we offer them a credit for a future Spirit;[URL]. [/URL]

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