O'Hare expansion revealed: Real western access for suburban flyers?

Chicago's big launch Wednesday of its revamped O'Hare International Airport modernization saw a key player - American Airlines - jumping ship and suburbs wondering if they'd missed the boat in terms of western access.

The unveiling of an $8.5 billion O'Hare makeover with a redo of Terminal 2 offered little for suburban travelers hopeful of being greeted by a building with security screening and a people-mover on the airport's west end once the Route 390 extension reaches the airport in 2024.

Instead, the city's plan provides for a 10,000-space parking lot and a security screening building at that location - both only for employees.

A western terminal and the economic boost it would bring has been a priority for the suburbs, especially DuPage County. Access to O'Hare now is only from the east.

"I believe what has been introduced is meaningful," DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin said. "It's going to happen. A foundation was laid that will lead to public access and public entry into the airport from the west."

But Bensenville Village Manager Evan Summers said, "We still implore the airport to build true western access into O'Hare."

Meanwhile, American Airlines pulled out of a deal with the city and United Airlines, citing last-minute tactics to benefit its rival.

American Airlines "was looking forward to supporting (a) new lease." But the airline can't sign the lease "because of a secret provision ... awarding additional gates to United," an American Airlines statement said Wednesday before the Chicago City Council meeting.

"We will move forward," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said when asked how the city could proceed without American's blessing. "There's plenty of things that everybody can look at that are important that they wanted to see and they got."

More gates, concourses, hotels and parking are part of the new O'Hare plan, reached after months of negotiations with American and United airlines. Most significantly, Terminal 2 would be rebuilt as the "O'Hare Global Terminal."

The idea of a western terminal has for years been tied to the ongoing extension of Route 390 east to the airport. Once known as the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway, Route 390's completion is part of a project that also includes a ring road extending along the west side of the airport connecting with I-90 in Des Plaines and I-294 in Franklin Park.

The city's plan calls for a parking facility, employee screening building and underground people-mover connecting to the terminals on the far west side. That type of facility for O'Hare employees was the basic wish DuPage officials had for the public, with a terminal being the best-case scenario.

Bensenville's Summers said the suburbs were "excited" to learn about the improvements to the airfield.

But "with over 60 percent of passengers and cargo originating from west of O'Hare, why wouldn't the airport want to be as efficient as possible? True western access is better for the region, the city, the carriers and the airport," Summers said.

Cronin said once the parking, screening and people-mover are built for employees, it's not a big leap to expect it will open to the public later as market demand grows.

"I vigorously advocated for western access," he said. "While disappointed there is not a terminal today, I am pleased there is significant progress toward complete access. I appreciate the seriousness with which the city and the airlines are addressing this issue, which is good for the airport, local residents and the regional economy."

The new Global Terminal would handle international flights and be equipped with U.S. Customs and Border Protection screening intended to expedite flight connections and move arriving passengers out of the airport faster.

Another element is expanding Terminal 5 by 25 percent, adding nine gates that will allow airlines to offer flights to more destinations more often.

Also envisioned under this proposal are two satellite concourses on the west side with a pedestrian tunnel network linking to the main terminals.

Overall, 35 new gates could be added to the airfield.

With leasing rights on gates for United and American airlines expiring this year, the city had a rare opportunity to gain some leverage over the powerful carriers that have pushed back over previous expansion plans.

"This allows us control of our own destiny," Emanuel said Wednesday. "It puts us in control of our economic future instead of at the 'kids' table.'"

The deal also comes as Chicago moves closer to its longtime goal of a mainly parallel runway system using east/west departures and arrivals.

The sixth and final parallel runway (9-Center/27-Center) will be commissioned in 2020 on the north airfield.

But it's unclear yet when a proposed extension of existing Runway 9-Right/27-Left will be constructed. That extension was intended to help more evenly distribute noise on the airfield around the region.

In a statement, United Airlines said it reached an agreement with the city for five additional gates in 2016 similar to one reached by American Airlines and the city in early 2016 for five additional gates.

The redevelopment should also benefit smaller carriers, such as Spirit and Alaska Airlines, the city said.

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Terminal 2 at O'Hare International Airport will be torn down and replaced with a new Global Terminal as part of a Chicago planned redo. Daily Herald File Photo
  An expansion detailed Wednesday could add up to 35 gates at O'Hare International Airport. Daniel White/
Bensenville Village Manager Evan Summers: "We still implore the airport to build true western access into O'Hare."
DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin: "A foundation was laid that will lead to public access and public entry into the airport from the west." Daily Herald file photo
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