Airlines: Stop O’Hare Airport Expansion

Published February 1, 2009

Major commercial airlines using O’Hare International Airport in Chicago want the next phase of a planned $15 billion airport expansion project halted.

The Chicago Tribune in November revealed it had exclusively obtained copies of letters the airlines had sent to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and City of Chicago urging an end to the project. A new runway opened at the airport in November, but most of the expansion work, including construction to reconfigure other runways and build new terminals, has not begun.

The city has already seized hundreds of homes and business in villages abutting the airport for the planned expansion.

‘Impulsive Grab for Funds’

The airlines include domestic carriers American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United and overseas carriers ANA-ALL Nippon Airways and Aer Lingus. The city’s plans are “premature and inappropriate” and an “impulsive grab for [tax] funds,” the airlines’ letters said.

Rosemarie Andolino, executive director of the O’Hare Modernization Program, did not return calls for comment.

The airlines’ objections, after years of public but somewhat reluctant support for airport expansion, have given special satisfaction to Bensenville Village Manager Jim Johnson.

Bensenville and nearby Elk Grove Village fought and lost a legal battle to block the City of Chicago from seizing private property in their villages for the airport expansion.

‘Economics Don’t Come Together’

“Obviously, we’re pleased the airlines have gone public with what we’ve known for many years,” said Johnson.

“Since the announcement of the project in 2001, our community has been fighting this plan,” Johnson continued. “The economics of the O’Hare plan just don’t come together. We knew this would die of its own weight, when the airlines would be forced to ante up these huge sums of money to continue financing this project. Now they’re saying many of the things we’ve been saying all along.”

DuPage County officials first opposed but later backed the airport expansion plans in hopes of a western terminal and access road to the airport. American and United Airlines both wrote they believe that part of the plan is “ill-conceived,” as the terminal would be far from other facilities, making it “not conducive to the current or any proposed hub, spoke, or international airline operations.”

Johnson described that part of the plan as “a political decision to garner political support from groups that had opposed the expansion, such as the County of DuPage. The city wants to spend billions on a plan that doesn’t accomplish what’s intended. Things are finally coming full circle. Obviously, we’re helped by bad economic times. Airlines are struggling.”

City Responds to FAA

In a response to the airlines’ statements, the city wrote the FAA the airlines are being shortsighted.

The Tribune quoted the city’s letter: “They would have the city stop OMP [O’Hare Modernization Program] development now, and restart it when the ‘current market reality’ improves,” the city said, and claimed doing so “will cause several years of delay and add significantly to its cost.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.