It’s been 50 years since John F. Kennedy formally dedicated O’Hare International Airport in March 1963.
If you don’t live near the behemoth, it’s just that place you rush through on a business trip or the starting point for a vacation.
But if you’re in the airport’s shadow — like all close relationships — it’s more complicated.
First, a quick history lesson. The airport site was chosen in 1945, picked up the name O’Hare in 1949 and opened for commercial traffic in 1955. Seven years later, it was the world’s busiest airport.
O’Hare and nearby suburbs have experienced a love/hate relationship since the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley started the first expansion in 1959. Local residents love the fact that the airport creates jobs, but hate the rattling windows in homes and schools and the threat a second expansion poses to communities.
After five decades, O’Hare and its neighbors have been through a lot together. So the question is: What’s next?
With turf wars in the background and the recession in the foreground, the hope appears to be: economic growth that benefits everyone.
“We’re very fortunate to have this world-class asset right in our back yard,” DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin said. “I can hop on the Tri-State, get to O’Hare in 20 minutes and fly anywhere in the world.
But, “we have not maximized (O’Hare’s) potential for economic development and commerce and jobs and opportunities for the region. I think once we realize the western (bypass) and access and new terminal, you’ll see the next 50 years surpass the first by far.”
To recap, the O’Hare Modernization Program calls for six parallel runways to speed up air traffic and a western terminal. The city projects it will cost $6.6 billion but critics say it will be much more. A related Illinois tollway construction project is extending the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway east from Itasca into the airport and building a western bypass.
The Chicago Department of Aviation states that 450,000 jobs in the region are linked to O’Hare and puts its economic impact at $38 billion. DuPage forecasters have predicted the western terminal and expressway would create 39,000 more jobs in the county.
“Chicago has jealously guarded this asset. It’s time to open it up and realize the full potential,” Cronin said.
Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie S. Andolino chooses her words carefully when asked about the western terminal. It’s been mothballed for a few years because of opposition from United and American Airlines, whose leaders don’t like the price tag and are wary of competition it could bring. The carriers briefly sued the city in 2011 until a truce was declared.
“We’ve always said it is a demand-driven project,” Andolino said in a recent interview. “We need tenants and as of this moment we don’t have interested parties. We suffered setbacks with 9/11, the recession ... we have to regain our position and regrow the market again.”
Not encouraging news for DuPage, which wants a western terminal as badly as Cubs fans want a pennant.
But, Andolino called the terminal “an important component to the overall plan for the airport. Once we’re done with the runways, we’ll start to feel the impact on the gates. The gates become the constraining factor ... and if you don’t have enough, you need something, whether it be a concourse or a full terminal.”
And without a terminal, when the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway finally reaches the airport, people can expect to see — a parking lot and a bus service, for the foreseeable future, Andolino said. Extending the airport’s people mover there would require a huge investment in underground infrastructure that’s cost-prohibitive now, she explained.
“I know it’s not ideal, it’s not what everyone wants ... but it will create an opening, a front door on the west side and ease congestion on the east side.”
Now about those runways. United and American (and its soon-to-be partner US Airways) are pushing back against plans for a new runway and an extension on the airport’s north side.
“We’ve started a dialogue,” Andolino said. “We’ll work collaboratively until we have an agreement that’s a win-win that meets the needs of the airport and airlines and creates better efficiency for the traveling public.”
Asked if the runways are nonnegotiable, she added, “we have to have a dialogue about what makes sense. The city of Chicago, the business community know O’Hare is too important to not continue to make investments here. Everyone knows O’Hare’s importance to the region and state, we need to see what investments make sense as we continue to improve our facility.”
So what lies ahead in 2013 and 2014?
A new runway for starters. The city fought with Bensenville about building 10-Center/28-Center — primarily because it was smack dab in the middle of a historical cemetery. Bensenville Village President John Geils, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and DuPage Chairman Robert Schillerstrom all played a role in the city-suburbs showdown. All three have gotten out of politics, the graves were moved and the runway is set to open Oct. 17.
And if 10,800 feet of pavement doesn’t thrill you, new bathrooms at Terminal 5 — also known as the International Terminal — might. The terminal is getting a chic face lift that includes a Rick Bayless restaurant and haute couture boutiques. The redesign makes sense, Andolino said, since for the first time, travelers who clear customs with time and cash to spare can shop.
Also of note is construction of a new car-rental facility that will locate all vendors together in one spot near the cellphone lot at O’Hare with access to the people-mover train.
But growing the airport is about more than bricks and mortar, Andolino said. She cited growth in new markets like Qatar Airways starting service to Doha or American adding flights to Düsseldorf, both this month.
Both Andolino and Craig Johnson hail from Elk Grove Village and grew up with the sound of airplanes rumbling overhead.
For years, they were on opposing sides over O’Hare expansion.
But that’s so 1990s/2000s. Now that plans for the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway don’t encroach on the village’s industrial park, Elk Grove Village Mayor Johnson wished the airport a happy 50th anniversary.
“We love O’Hare, we realize O’Hare is economically important for the region — businesses are here because of O’Hare, but we don’t love it so much we’d allow the airport to take out part of our community,” Johnson said.
Johnson is skeptical a western terminal or six parallel runways will ever come to fruition, but he’s a believer in the Elgin-O’Hare project, which includes a full interchange at Elmhurst Road.
“The biggest complaint of the business community is traffic — every minute a truck idles costs money. So the faster you’re in and out is better for business. This full interchange is huge for us,” he said.
You should know
If you think negotiations between United/American and Chicago are hard-core now, wait for a few years until the mother of all deals must be reworked. Currently the city and two predominant airlines operate under a 30-year airport use agreement (known as an MII) that sets the number of gates the airlines control and offers them leverage over the financing and extent of O’Hare expansion for the reason that it’s ultimately their customers who will pay for any work.
The days of the 30-year deal are done, Andolino said, noting shorter contracts ranging from seven to 15 years are the standard.
“We want their continued investment and commitment and we want them to call Chicago home; at the same time, we want flexibility to adopt to make those improvements and grow our facility so we continue to be best in class.”
No, it’s not an April Fool’s Day prank. It really is road work closing a lane on eastbound Route 20 at Bloomingdale Road in Schaumburg. IDOT crews will be working until April 19 to repairs drains.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.