O'Hare hits a milestone with commissioning of final parallel runway

Typically, the word "bittersweet" isn't compatible with the commissioning of a massive infrastructure project like Runway 9-Center/27-Center at O'Hare International Airport, but amid the COVID-19 pandemic it fits.

Instead of the traditional fanfare with senators, congressional representatives, mayors and local leaders, the city of Chicago followed public health precautions and issued a video commemorating the completion of O'Hare's sixth and final parallel runway expected to even out jet noise in the region.

"This is an incredibly exciting time at Chicago's airports, and I can't wait to see everyone in person when we celebrate the successful conclusion of OMP and the dawn of O'Hare 21," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, referring to the O'Hare Modernization Program and a new plan to expand and update the airport's terminals.

Lightfoot, elected in 2019, missed the bruising tug-of-war between Chicago and the suburbs that lasted years over the city's plan to shift to a parallel, east/west runway system to improve safety and increase capacity. Bensenville lost about 600 homes and businesses as part of the expansion and accepted a $16 million settlement from Chicago after prolonged litigation.

Runway 9C/27-C, located on the north airfield, is 11,245 feet long and 200 feet wide. For a brief period it will be the second-longest runway at O'Hare, behind Runway 10-Left/28-Right at 13,000 feet.

"The commissioning of Runway 9-Center marks a significant milestone for O'Hare and Chicago and the final element of this program of global proportions that will be completed next year with the extension of Runway 9-Right/27-Left," Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee said.

The city will complete extending 9-Right/27-Left to a span of 11,260 feet in late 2021.

The entire modernization plan includes four new runways, two runway extensions and two new air traffic control towers. The intent was to allow O'Hare to operate in an east/west flow with three runways on the north airfield and three to the south. Two of the airport's busiest diagonal runways were removed as part of the project, and the new flight patterns caused an uproar starting in 2013 when O'Hare shifted to a largely parallel system.

Officials are hoping the latest runway and extension will even out the din of airplanes so neighborhoods around O'Hare experience fewer flights at night.

Former O'Hare air traffic controller Craig Burzych, now a consultant, said the new runway "adds capacity as well as simplifies things for controllers who routinely get refusals by pilots to use the shorter runways. It also has noise benefits for the overnight hours - you have another long runway that can be used in the runway rotation program overnight."

DePaul University aviation expert and professor Joseph Schwieterman said, "O'Hare should be running like a top next year with these latest runway improvements and the downturn in flight activity. Equally important, the improvements will allow carriers to again 'think big' at O'Hare - and prepare for large-scale expansion once the market rebounds."

  A plane leaves O'Hare International Airport on Oct. 29. Brian Hill/
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