Here's what to expect when the nation's busiest airport recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Passengers check in at Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport in late October. Flight operations were down by 46% in August, Chicago Department of Aviation data shows.

      Passengers check in at Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport in late October. Flight operations were down by 46% in August, Chicago Department of Aviation data shows. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • The baggage claim area of Terminal 3 in late October reflects a drop in traffic due to COVID-19 at O'Hare International Airport.

      The baggage claim area of Terminal 3 in late October reflects a drop in traffic due to COVID-19 at O'Hare International Airport. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • The baggage claim area of Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport is quiet due to the pandemic Oct. 29.

      The baggage claim area of Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport is quiet due to the pandemic Oct. 29. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • A TSA security checkpoint at Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport.

      A TSA security checkpoint at Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • A plane leaves O'Hare International Airport.

      A plane leaves O'Hare International Airport. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/16/2020 10:18 AM

This week, O'Hare International Airport marked a milestone years in the making when a sixth parallel runway opened.

But instead of the usual fanfare, Chicago leaders opted for a virtual ribbon-cutting. The bare-bones approach reflects the toll COVID-19 has taken on the travel industry and begs the question -- what is the future of aviation at O'Hare?

 

Flight numbers sank by 46% at O'Hare in August, or 45,999 operations compared to 83,016 at the same time in 2019, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. And August was a relatively good month -- in May travel was down 71% at the nation's busiest airport.

"I anticipate the logjam finally breaking in late spring 2021, when travel-hungry flyers will start taking flights again in a big way," transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman said.

"By late 2021, travel volumes at O'Hare could be, perhaps, at 80% of pre-pandemic levels, although, for airlines, the revenue picture will remain dicey due to all the discounting," said Schwieterman, a professor and director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

But as demand grows, flyers won't see the same lavish menu of destinations and schedules available pre-COVID-19 for a while.

"Airlines are going to be restoring capacity on the routes that have the most demand going forward," said Julie Kyse, vice president of global air partners for Expedia Group.

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"We would also expect that until demand fully returns, airlines will reduce frequencies. Where, perhaps, they had five or six flights a day to a certain destination, in the coming months -- maybe -- they will only have three to four.

"One of the other things impacting capacity is governmental restrictions," Kyse added, explaining international travel is dependent on when countries open their borders amid the pandemic. For example, the borders between the U.S. and Canada are closed to nonessential travel.

Smaller cities may cut back destinations, AAA's Molly Hart predicts, but "Chicago is an exception since there is plenty of lift, and Southwest Airlines has now acquired O'Hare slots and maintained service out of Midway," she said.

United Airlines is "operating service to nearly 90% of the destinations we served in 2019, but with fewer flights to each destination," spokeswoman Kimberly Gibbs said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In the meantime, the carrier expanded to Tel Aviv, Israel, in September and is kicking off new service to Delhi, India, in December.

Rival American Airlines is "constantly evaluating our network to match supply and demand and have been making regular schedule adjustments since March," spokeswoman Gianna Urgo said.

Three years to normal

A June survey of 537 aviation professionals showed 44% believe it will take airlines 18 months to three years to return to 2019 revenue levels, said Lawrence G. Hill, economics professor and department chairman at Lewis University in Romeoville.

Nearly 70% of those surveyed predict the industry will be fundamentally changed, Hill added.

Seismic shifts may include some airlines mothballing jumbo jets for now, experts expect.

"The combination of low fuel prices and soft demand will mean more smaller planes," Schwieterman said. "Don't expect seeing as many Boeing 787 Dreamliners working domestic routes as before. Regional jets and mid-size planes with three-by-three seating will remain the workhorses."

Hill noted "some of the size of the planes depends on the price of fuel. With the Saudi Arabians and Russians dueling over the oil market, the prices should stay low for a while, which is a bright spot in a dark room right now for airlines."

As the aviation industry sheds millions and lays off thousands of workers, should consumers anticipate higher fares?

"Looking at the pricing trends, we would expect to see lower prices on average for a while yet, until demand starts to recover," Expedia's Kyes said. "Average ticket prices for domestic flights could rebound more quickly than international if the trend of people skewing more toward domestic trips continues.

Hill projected "the industry itself will digitize much more than it does now, and this will lead to lower costs as well."

Pricey ginger ale?

Another question is whether cash-strapped airlines will accelerate nickel and diming customers for soda pop and carry-ons.

"This will really vary by airline," Kyse said. "Some airlines might use this sort of model to try and recoup some revenue while demand is down, while others might go the opposite direction and offer more incentives to travelers. We've also seen many airlines eliminate change fees, responding to the fact that travelers really value flexibility more than ever right now," she noted.

And what about more or less leg room?

"We can't say how much smaller the legroom can get -- as it has shrunk 3 to 4 inches in pitch and some width over the years to accommodate the addition of more rows," AAA's Hart said.

Business travel is another variable.

Itasca-based W.S. Darley & Co. manufactures firetrucks and related equipment it sells all over the world. Currently, "we have very limited travel planned for 2021," CEO Paul C. Darley said. "I would anticipate it would be at 25% of pre-COVID-19 levels. We are currently at 5% of pre-COVID-19 levels.

"There are some advantages to selling remote, but overall as a relationship-based company, overall it's been pretty negative. It's hard to build relationships sitting behind your desk ... even virtually."

Kyse said: "Leisure travel is likely to recover first. I think business travel will come back, but the question is when and whether it will return to the same level as before."

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