O'Hare runways should be finished

Updated 1/20/2011 7:52 PM

Daily Herald Editorial Board

The very last thing O'Hare International Airport needs is another protracted court battle.


And, as O'Hare is the vital economic engine that drives suburban and city vitality, the last thing any of us need is for O'Hare to be in the midst of another drawn-out court fight.

But that is just where we're headed with news this week that United and American Airlines are suing the city of Chicago to try to stop a borrowing plan that would fund Phase II of the airport modernization plan.

Airline officials believe they have the right, through contracts with the city, to approve or deny capital projects. They believe the city is loading the airport with billions of dollars in debt that will raise the airlines' cost of doing business.

We empathize with airline executives' concerns. We understand they, like the rest of us, are weathering the Great Recession. Moreover, the airlines were affected more than many businesses by the traumatic after effects of 9/11. And while many projects have had to be stalled or postponed because of economic conditions, we firmly believe it would be shortsighted to sit still on this critical project. It would be shortsighted to sit still on the runway realignment and expansion that already has been through so many court battles and reviews and federal vetting.

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Chicago officials argue the airlines have no say over the project because the airlines' contracts are set to expire before debt payments are due. That sounds like quite a technicality. City officials want to proceed with plans for two new runways, an extension to an existing runway and other improvements that the suit estimates will cost about $3.4 billion. The airlines are on the hook for nearly 60 percent of that price tag.

It is certainly true that the number of flights in 2009 was 6.1 percent lower than in 2008. The number dropped, too, for the two previous years. But the economy will turn and O'Hare, its major airlines and other airlines should be ready for that rebound. Indeed, we believe Aviation Department Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino has a point when she says the modernization program itself is "creating jobs and stimulating the region's economy."

We mean no disrespect to attorneys, but we'd rather see jobs created at the airport than fees created for lawyers.

Andolino, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, and United and American airline executives need to sit down together now and hammer out an agreement by which both sides can abide. The courtroom battles and threats must end.

The modernization plan was forged nearly 10 years ago after decades of court fights and rhetorical battles.

O'Hare remains a vital engine that makes the city, the suburbs and all of us fly. Grounding its expansion in legal maneuvers will only ground us all.