The executive who will lead the new American Airlines after its merger with US Airways has agreed to meet with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for discussions likely to include the massive modernization project at O'Hare International Airport.
US Airways CEO Doug Parker has spoken with Emanuel and is working on setting up a meeting in person, airline spokeswoman Liz Landau said. Parker met Wednesday in Washington with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who stressed the need to keep the O'Hare project on track despite the merger and suggested the meeting with Emanuel.
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The multibillion-dollar project to reconfigure and add runways at O'Hare, one of the biggest airports in the world, began more than a decade ago and is aimed at expanding capacity and eliminating severe delays that had affected the whole country because the airport serves as a key hub for connecting flights. The city has fought to keep the project on track despite upheaval in the airline industry that has included bankruptcies, mergers, soaring fuel costs and drop-offs in demand during the recession.
American and United both have hubs at O'Hare and have been key players in the project. But in past negotiations they have balked at putting up most of the funding for more upgrades. Money for the work also comes from government bonds and federal programs, but not local taxpayers.
In January 2011, the two airlines filed a lawsuit against the city to try to stop it from issuing bonds to finance the airport expansion without the airlines' approval.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood intervened and a deal was reached in March of that year for a $1.17 billion second phase of the project, which includes as a major component another new runway expected to be finished by 2015.
The airlines also agreed to return to the negotiating table by March 1 of this year to discuss the final phases of the modernization project.
After this year's merger brought US Airways into the mix, Durbin sent a letter to Parker and American's president and CEO, Thomas Horton, calling it essential that the merger not delay those talks. The letter, also signed by Illinois' other senator, Mark Kirk, stressed that O'Hare is an economic engine for the Midwest and essential for keeping Chicago and the nation economically competitive.
It also reminded them that the merger would "face regulatory scrutiny before being approved."
The airline executives responded with a letter on Tuesday that included language used in the past in arguing over the timing and cost of new parts of the project.
"You have our commitment that we will continue to work collaboratively with the city and are supportive of cost-effective, demand-driven projects at the airport," it said.
Durbin repeated his message in Wednesday's meeting with Parker. The most significant outcome was Parker agreeing to meet with Emanuel, said the senator's spokeswoman Christina Mulka.
Emanuel's office said it could not confirm the meeting.
Once all sides get into the nitty-gritty of negotiations, the main sticking points are again likely to be over the timing, funding and necessity of further expansion.
Aviation expert Aaron Gellman of the Northwestern University Transportation Center said he does not think the merger should slow things down, though it could provide the airlines with an excuse to drag things.
"I wouldn't think it's an obstacle unless the airlines want it to be," Gellman said.
"If the airlines want to play that card I suppose they could."
Gellman said the city is right to build ahead of demand and he hopes the airlines "will see the light."
"Typically in this country ... we build airports after the demand has been there for a long time and that leads to congestion and all kinds of problems," he said.