New O'Hare overnight runway rotation plan coming in two weeks
If a second overnight runway rotation intended to equally distribute jet noise around the region occurs at O'Hare International Airport, federal regulators want safety improvements.
Chicago Department of Aviation officials told an O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission committee Wednesday they hope to deliver a new rotation proposal in two weeks. An earlier six-month test ended Dec. 25.
Planners face a herculean task satisfying conflicting demands of pilots, sleep-deprived communities and the Federal Aviation Administration.
FAA Regional Administrator Barry Cooper cautioned in a letter dated Monday that if another rotation occurs, the CDA should avoid conditions present in the first allowing taxiing planes to cross active runways, and aircraft using the same runway for arrivals and departures.
Data released Wednesday show the rotation, which was voluntary, started on average at 11:16 p.m. and ended at 5:25 a.m. from July 6 to Dec. 25.
In striving to ensure noise is spread more evenly at night, the plan rotated runways that are parallel and diagonal, and long and short, as well as east and west flight operations.
Another FAA concern was ensuring long runways are always available because a higher than expected number of pilots and air traffic controllers at other facilities asked for exceptions to scheduled shorter runways, the FAA said.
"This led to significant additional coordination by (O'Hare tower) air traffic controllers and Chicago Department of operations staff," Cooper wrote. "This is a scenario that could cause confusion and introduce safety risks."
Surveys from residents showed 61 percent of total responses supporting another rotation with 39 percent opposed. Residents, however, could respond more than once. Based on the total number of people responding, 51 percent wanted a continuation with 49 percent against.
Numerous communities, such as Bensenville and Wood Dale, gave the rotation positive marks as it provided much-needed sleep on certain weeks.
But in towns like Schaumburg and Des Plaines, the reaction wasn't as positive when noise from runways not typically used at night disturbed homeowners.
The challenge is "can we distribute even more evenly?" CDA Deputy Commissioner Aaron Frame asked.
One variable for planners is weather. During the rotation, planes ended up departing and arriving to and from the west more frequently than to the east because of prevailing winds.
Another issue is runway length. O'Hare runways range in length from 7,500 feet to 13,000 feet and pilots of larger planes or aircraft loaded down with cargo typically prefer more space.
The rotation did schedule runways of different sizes, but departing flights ended up using just two runways 57 percent of the time. Those were two of O'Hare's longer runways, Runway 10-Center/28-Center that affects the Bensenville and Wood Dale area, and Runway 15/33 that affects communities such as Schaumburg during takeoffs.
"We think it somewhat backfired," said Cynthia Schultz of JDA Aviation Solutions, consultants for the Suburban O'Hare Commission. "Over 20 percent use of any runway is too much."
FAA officials said they were not aware of any near misses on the airfield during the rotation.
The ONCC's Fly Quiet committee is likely to vote on a new rotation at a Feb. 22 meeting and the full commission would weigh in March 10. The FAA and city of Chicago also need to sign off on any plans. A rotation could start as soon as this spring.
Any permanent rotation plan, however, is a moving target since in 2018 Chicago will decommission Runway 15/33, located on the northwest airfield.