Behind the scenes at American Airlines' O'Hare hub
Stowaway critters. Know-it-all passengers. Gate whack-a-mole.
During a recent National Aviation Day event, American Airlines pilots, mechanics and control center coordinators spilled the beans on what it takes to push 498 flights out of O'Hare International Airport daily.
Tucked away in Terminal 3 is an unobtrusive door that leads to a secret corridor. Head up several flights of stairs and you're at American's hub control center.
The tower room encircled with windows gives a bird's-eye view of 737s, 777s and 787s maneuvering to and from the airline's 66 gates.
Planners scrutinize computer screens, work phones and eyeball the airfield. The hub crew coordinates everything from catering to baggage to reassigning gates, each working a designated area called an "alley."
"We've got a problem!" one coordinator calls out and relays news of a sick passenger on Flight 711 from Dublin. An ambulance is called and employees pivot to the next dilemma.
For Senior Planner Lisa Hayes, it's linking "pucks," or inbound and outbound flights. Late arrivals have caused disconnects and she's got to troubleshoot so jets get to the right gates and passengers get the right information.
"It's up to us to put the pieces back together," Hayes said.
Calibrations, such as steering pilots to open gates and marshaling baggage handlers, promptly make the difference between passengers making and missing connections.
"There's a lot of information going up and down through these phones," tower customer service manager Juan Moreno said.
North of the tower on the airfield itself is American's massive tech ops hangar.
Dwarfed by a behemoth 787, aircraft maintenance technician Victor Ysais explained, "we take care of anything that has to do with the aircraft -- from replacing tires and brakes to adjusting a tray table up in the cabin."
But it's not just tightening bolts. "With the (Boeing) 777s and 787s, it's all computers," Ysais said.
Technology, however, was no help diagnosing the mysterious "bad smell" coming from a jet once. "A raccoon got into the ground air conditioners, then got up into the airplane's guts," recounted Technical Crew Chief Jack O'Callaghan. Back in the flight operations area at Terminal 3, Chief Pilot Tim Raynor gestured at a globe and myriad maps.
"Pilots come in here, they plot out their flight, take a look at the maps, take a look at the weather. They do a quick crew briefing and walk up to their planes," said Raynor, a Barrington resident.
Although information comes in on his iPad, Raynor, a former Marine, prefers the old-school map room. It gets everyone "battle-ready," he said.
The chief pilot is the designated fixer. On any given day, Raynor could be intervening to ensure fatigued crews get rest, to dispatch a cleaner go-team to obliterate vomit spills or to charm irate passengers.
Without fail, whenever weather delays a flight, a certain type of business traveler will gripe, "'I just got off the phone with my wife. She says it's 80 degrees and sunny here,'" Raynor said with a wry grin. He's been known to whip out his smartphone's weather app and offer a tutorial.
We know why you fly
American Airlines is one of O'Hare major players, operating 35 percent of all air traffic. The airline conveyed 27 million fliers through the airport in 2015 and each month coordinates about 12 million pounds of freight. It employs more than 9,500 people in Illinois and the average tenure is about 18 years. What else? Expect new uniforms in mid-September, reflecting the carrier's merger with US Airways.
You should know
Chicago is gradually retiring some of its diagonal runways in favor of the parallel east/west system, which has spawned concerns about noise.
"Does it (diagonal or parallel) make that big of a difference to us?" Raynor said. "No, except when there are severe crosswinds. We have a crosswind limitation on just about every plane in the fleet of 30 knots (34.5 mph).
"That's what those diagonal runways are there for, so you're not landing with an extreme crosswind. I think they figured out that 99 percent of the time we can land either going west or going east and stay within our crosswind limitations."
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It's a column first -- an IDOT alert about sidewalk closures through Wednesday along Route 38 in St. Charles. Workers are fixing pedestrian ramps at Peck, Randall and Bricher roads, 14th Street and the St. Charles Mall entrance. Some lane closures could occur.