Some suburbanites say new O'Hare runway 'nothing to celebrate'
Neighborhoods surrounding O'Hare International Airport that have been rattled by jet noise are bracing themselves after the opening of Chicago's latest parallel runway Thursday.
It's the third commissioning of a new runway in seven years, and the public's mood has darkened since a jubilant celebration marking the first one in 2008.
Compared to previous openings, Thursday's opening ceremony was more subdued, with no high-ranking congressmen or senators attending, although former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was there.
Runway 10-Right/28-Left is on the far south airfield and is expected to handle primarily flights arriving from the west. That's got suburbanites in nearby Bensenville and Wood Dale and as far away as St. Charles and Wayne wondering how they'll fare in the game of noise roulette.
Bensenville Mayor Frank Soto was one dignitary who didn't attend Thursday's ceremonies.
"Certainly, I'm not looking forward to it being here," Soto said. He regretted that pushback from United and American Airlines over financing had forced Chicago to delay plans to build a runway and extend an existing one on the north airfield, which could have moved some jet noise away from his town.
"Unfortunately, the other two runways that should have been built ... are not built yet, and people are being inundated and will have a disproportionate share of the flights until those runways are completed," Soto said.
Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans has promised a more equal distribution of noise in 2021 when six parallel runways are complete. Until then, the new runway will be used mainly for arrivals from the west and operate from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
The city switched to an east/west flow of air traffic in 2013. Although easing off certain diagonal runways has relieved communities north of the airport, the shift drew instant consternation from communities in both Chicago and the suburbs who have complained of a constant racket.
Currently, 30 percent of O'Hare is in "east flow," in which jets land from the west and depart to the east.
The new runway should handle about 125 flights landing from the west -- 11.8 percent of total O'Hare arrivals -- between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., the FAA projects.
Adding to the controversy are calls to keep two diagonal runways open although the city already retired one this summer.
Advocates of the diagonals argue they're the key to evenly spreading out the jet din, and members of the Fair Allocation in Runways group issued a statement saying the new runway "was nothing to celebrate."
Evans has said the parallel system is safer and more efficient because it avoids a crisscross situation.
The new runway is "a major step in fixing a 1960s airport design," she said. The city estimates 10R/28L will improve arrival rates by 40 percent in poor weather and 24 percent in good weather.
United and American sued Chicago in 2011 over airport expansion, but LaHood helped broker a peace to allow negotiations to continue. Chicago may have some extra leverage as the clock ticks on a lease agreement with the two airlines ending in May 2018 that gives them a say in whether the city can borrow funds for airport projects.
"The modernization of O'Hare has to happen," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. "We as a city cannot rest on our laurels."
Evans said Thursday the city and airlines were making "significant progress" on the issue.
The latest runway is the fifth parallel at O'Hare, costing $516 million and measuring 7,500 feet long and 150 feet wide.
A new $45 million air traffic control tower also opened Thursday to watch over 10-Right/28-Left flights.
The runway will be a little different from its peers because pilots are being instructed to approach the runway from a 2.5-degree angle to the south, then straighten out within five to 10 miles of landing. This tactic is known as an offset and is necessary because 10R/28L falls slightly short of the required space between it and the nearest runway, 10-Center/28-Center.
In tandem with the offset, pilots will follow a special "precision runway monitor" or PRM approach aimed at preventing any midair collisions or near-misses. It boils down to an air traffic controller operating a separate radio frequency and issuing warnings if one airplane is drifting too close to another or if a go-round is necessary.
The offset's impact on noise will be watched closely in the coming days.
Beverly Barker of Roselle is affected by two runways.
"I not only get it from one runway but two, and they are in sync," she said. "And, now they are having another runway going to open for a total of three runways going east-west. There is no help for us out here."
At Bensenville's Metra station, Sam Gallion said he's thankful for living in Bartlett because noise at his workplace in town is intolerable. "It's one after the other," he said of the planes. "You could wave at the passengers."
But Ismael Bonilla of Bensenville said he's seen an improvement in recent months after living with a racket for years. "Now, it doesn't bother me," he said.