April 22, 2002

Chicago Sun-Times


O'Hare traffic returning to normal


April 22, 2002



Air travel, which went from torrent to trickle after Sept. 11, has rebounded so much that O'Hare Airport is handling about as many flights as a year ago.

While that's good news for the economy, it also could mean the return of the types of delays that frustrated travelers the last few summers.

"Anticipate the same issues we had last year," warned Craig Burzych.

He's president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at O'Hare, where bad weather, a swelling number of flights, a lack of new runways, airline overscheduling and limitations on the use of congestion-relieving landing procedures helped make flying to and from Chicago an often-agonizing experience.

Because of O'Hare's central location and size, those delays rippled across the nation, intensifying the debate over adding runways at O'Hare. Mayor Daley and Gov. Ryan have since agreed on a plan, but opposition from U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) means new runways are no sure thing.

Nationally, air traffic remains 5 percent to 10 percent below last year's levels, federal officials said.

But at O'Hare, "daily operations are back to normal," said city Aviation Department spokeswoman Monique Bond. "It was down by 20 percent, a standing 20 percent, and it's gradually picked up."

At its busiest last summer, O'Hare handled a whopping 2,600 to 2,900 daily takeoffs and landings, said Bob Keyes, who oversees O'Hare air traffic management issues for the controllers' union. "Right now, we're 2,500 to 2,600," Keyes said. "If you're working up in the tower, you wouldn't know any difference. When it gets busy, it's busy as hell."

That sometimes means launching and landing more than 200 aircraft an hour.

United Airlines plans to add more than 60 daily departures at O'Hare on June 7, making operations "comparable" to pre-Sept. 11 levels, a spokesman said.

American Airlines, which now offers 338 departures each day from O'Hare, is increasing that number to 350 on June 20, slightly below the 358 flights available on the same date last year, said spokeswoman Sonja Whitemon.

On Friday, O'Hare handled 2,505 flights, while the Friday average in April 2001 was 2,576, according to preliminary federal figures.

O'Hare is rebounding more quickly than many other airports, including those on the coasts that rely more on international traffic, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman William Shumann.

In the five months following the hijackings, O'Hare's flight load was down 6.6 percent, while airports in Boston, Seattle, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles were down around 20 percent, federal figures show.

"We're probably between 92 and 95 percent of pre-Sept. 11 levels systemwide," said John Carr, national president of the controllers' union, citing FAA figures.

Initially, experts predicted that the aviation system would return to "normal" flight and passenger levels in 2003. But based on the recovery so far, Carr said he believes the industry will snap back by the end of the summer.

When O'Hare is really busy, there's not much flexibility, so the slightest equipment problem or burp from the weather can foul up operations.

What may further complicate matters this summer are the new security workers and procedures added since Sept. 11.

"It's going to be a difficult summer," Carr said. "I'm not going to say extremely difficult . . . we're just going to be challenged."

[Chicago ATC News]