Quiet O'Hare noise at night? Aviation commissioner says she'll try

A sit-down meeting between Chicago aviation officials and an O'Hare anti-noise watchdog group Monday resulted in pledges from the airport chief to try to reduce noise at night and appeals from residents to keep diagonal runways open.

As part of a shift to a parallel runway system, O'Hare switched to an east/west flight pattern in October 2013, and complaints started skyrocketing.

Focusing on night flights, new Chicago Aviation Department Commissioner Ginger Evans said the city is studying ways to tweak operations so it's quieter for people trying to sleep.

"If the objective is not to fly over residential areas (at night), we can accommodate (that)," Evans said at a meeting with the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition.

Evans didn't give details, saying the aviation department was analyzing multiple noise issues, and ideas presented by FAIR and the Suburban O'Hare Commission, and would offer solutions later.

But O'Hare's converging runways are outdated compared to other facilities with parallel systems that are safer and more efficient, she said, citing Denver and Atlanta airports.

In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration instituted new rules to stop the use of converging runways.

"If we'd had the old airfield with converging runways, we'd be on our knees," Evans said. "if we hadn't proceeded with parallel runways, (O'Hare) would have collapsed."

FAIR members argued for sparing diagonal runways at O'Hare slated for retirement.

"The impact on our lives is real," said FAIR co-founder Jac Charlier.

"Diagonal runways "present the best options for Fly Quiet," he said, referring to a noise-reduction program. "They present the best options for equitable distribution."

Chicago plans to open another parallel - Runway 10-Right/28-Left on the south end of the airport in mid-October. The new addition would handle landings in "east-flow" configurations, meaning flights arriving from the west.

O'Hare uses its west-flow system about 70 percent of the time and east-flow about 30 percent. "We're trying to create an airfield with balance. ... Right now we have an unbalanced airport," Evans said.

Evans said the city was considering noise complaints filed by residents to FAIR but wouldn't use it as a metric to make decisions.

FAIR officials urged her to reconsider. "How will you incorporate the reduction of noise on the lives of people?" Charlier asked.

Residents pressed Evans to give a yes or no answer on retiring the diagonal runways.

The commissioner said the city was still studying the question. She noted it was hard to come up with a more "efficient" way of operating an airport than the one the FAA had modeled using the parallel runways.

She also advised, "Don't go down a blind alley and take on something NTSB has recommended against (converging runways)."

O'Hare's "not going away and we respect that," said Elk Grove Mayor Craig Johnson, a member of the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission. But "O'Hare needs to realize the importance of our communities on the economic well-being of O'Hare."

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