Air traffic controllers question safety of O'Hare runway rotation

Months of negotiations culminated Wednesday in the debut of an overnight runway rotation test at O'Hare International Airport intended to give sleepless residents relief by distributing jet noise across the region.

The rare experiment comes after pressure from thousands fed up with the din, and it represents an unprecedented collaboration of Chicago, the suburbs and Federal Aviation Administration.

Too bad some of the folks in charge of landing the airplanes aren't on board.

I spoke with one current and two retired air traffic controllers who think elements of the rotation, such as removing longer runways on certain weeks, pose risks and could cause problems for pilots.

Every operation at O'Hare is safe, FAA administrators counter.

The runway rotation, which is voluntary, changes weekly. Parallel and diagonal ones will be in the mix as well as 10,801- and 13,000-foot-long behemoths and shorter runways ranging from 7,500 to 9,600 feet.

If someone had asked their opinion, the controllers say, they would have advised the Chicago Department of Aviation to always keep one runway of at least 10,000 feet open overnight, as was the custom to accommodate aircraft like cargo planes loaded with freight.

"The reality is, those jets require those runways," said Guy Lieser, a retired air traffic controller and pilot. "There will be issues with heavy jets, especially if there's bad weather and the runways are slicker."

FAA officials did not directly comment on controllers' concerns.

"As the test of the city's nighttime rotation plan moves forward, we will continue to work closely with the Department of Aviation to ensure safe operations and thorough coordination of the city's procedures," FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said. The rotation is a six-month test and will be evaluated at its conclusion.

While the region sleeps, FedEx, UPS and foreign cargo jets keep O'Hare humming. Concerns raised by Lieser and the other controllers include:

• Big jets denied a long runway could overshoot a short one or might have to divert to another airport.

• The city requests two hours' notice if a pilot requires O'Hare's longest runway, 10-Left/28-Right, stretching 13,000 feet. Not every arriving pilot will be able to comply with the two-hour rule, controllers said. And when closed runways open up in the middle of the night with maintenance workers out on the airfield, it could compromise safety,

• Departing pilots who need extra length could end up waiting until more runways open in the early morning, sources said. That could be an unwelcome wake-up call for neighborhoods some weeks.

• Using a single runway for takeoffs and landings, which occurs about four weeks out of the 12-week rotation, is less efficient and adds an unnecessary risk.

The city's aviation department deferred to the FAA on the issue. "We always make sure that every operation is a safe operation," Molinaro said.

The O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission, which spearheaded the rotation, said FAA authorities thoroughly vetted the plan.

"FAA management has been extensively involved and issued the approval for the test," noise commission Chairwoman and Mount Prospect Mayor Arlene Juracek said. "This appears to be a union/management issue at the FAA."

What happens next?

Despite his reservations, Lieser said O'Hare controllers "working this traffic are the best in the world, bar none. They'll do it exactly right and get it done."

Got an opinion on the overnight runway rotation? Drop me a line at

<h3 class="leadin">One more thing

The O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission and the Chicago Department of Aviation are asking people within hearing distance of O'Hare to fill out surveys weekly describing noise levels after each rotation at

The surveys are for the overnight rotation only, Juracek noted.

People with noise complaints can contact the city at (800) 435-9569 or

<h3 class="leadin">Gridlock alert

• Get ready for some ramp spaghetti on Meacham Road at the Jane Addams Tollway this week when two northbound lanes will shift to the northbound side of the bridge.

• Route 14 east of Route 23 in Harvard closes Monday through Friday for drainage work.

• The tollway starts bridge repairs on the eastbound Reagan Tollway between Warrenville Road and Route 53 this week. Westbound drivers, you're good to go.

<h3 class="leadin">

The Great Hall at Union Station. Daily Herald file photo

Transit trumps bickering

Despite the political bickering, state lawmakers did one good thing last month by approving special taxing districts around transit, the Metropolitan Planning Council says. As tax revenues grow, the extra money is used to match funds from the federal government for transit improvements. These include renovations at Union Station and on the CTA Red and Purple lines.

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