O'Hare to get even busier

October 5, 2000

BY ROBERT C. HERGUTH TRANSPORTATION REPORTER

O'Hare Airport, where airline overscheduling has contributed to a season of horrific delays, is poised to handle 35,000 more commercial flights during the first eight months of 2001, according to an analysis of published schedules.

That's raising fears of a three-peat nobody wants: a third straight year of intolerable air traffic snarls, coupled with worsening noise and pollution. Bad weather, labor problems and the airlines' habit of scheduling too many takeoffs at peak hours helped make this past summer among the worst ever for travelers.

"Right now, the slightest glitch throws O'Hare into chaos," said Joe Karaganis, an attorney for the Suburban O'Hare Commission, which fights O'Hare noise and expansion. "So if you're saying an additional 35,000 flights, can O'Hare handle it on any given day? Maybe yes, maybe no.

"But on one of those days, given the slightest glitch [with weather or computer problems], you're going to have a major chaotic situation," he said.

Airline and other industry officials, however, wonder whether the 35,000 figure, which accounts for takeoffs and landings, will hold. Schedules that are projected that far in advance often change, they said.

"It's really premature to say whether flights are going to go up, down or stay the same because the decisions by many of the carriers haven't been made yet," said United Airlines spokesman Joe Hopkins.

Some airlines schedule their flights 11 months in advance, and many 2001 operations won't be "firmed up" until February or March, he said.

The city of Chicago, which runs O'Hare, has never said how many flights O'Hare can safely process each year. But city officials have said the airport can handle demand for at least 12 to 15 years without a new runway, and they expect operations to grow 0.7 percent annually from 1997 to 2012. By 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration says, O'Hare will see more than 1.1 million annual departures and arrivals, up from 897,000 last year.

"The trend is still very minimal, and we don't see a huge increase or problem," Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for Chicago's aviation department, said about the jump in scheduled flights. The $3.2 billion World Gateway terminal and gate expansion project should help absorb near-term growth, she added.

Commercial carriers--both cargo and passenger--have scheduled 641,149 arrivals and departures at O'Hare between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of next year, according to a recent analysis by OAG, an Oak Brook company that collects schedule information from airlines. During the same period this year, there were 605,706 scheduled takeoffs and landings at O'Hare.

The increase would bring an average of about 145 additional daily flights to O'Hare, or about six more per hour. However, it's likely many flights would continue to be bunched around the peak times, said Craig Burzych, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at O'Hare Tower.

Controllers could handle the load without compromising safety; if need be, they would just keep planes on the ground longer, he said.

The increase appears fueled by the surging economy that's bringing in new carriers and destinations. Aviation officials also pointed to legislation that has begun phasing out flight caps at major airports like O'Hare and encourages airlines to fly to smaller, traditionally underserved markets.

Many of next year's scheduled flights involve "regional jets" becoming popular for such travel. The major carriers, on the other hand, probably won't see many more O'Hare flights next year, partly because they still have certain flight restrictions in place, airline officials said.

The OAG schedules typically don't include military and general aviation aircraft, which accounted for about 30,000 flights at O'Hare in 1999.

For all of 2000, 920,348 flights have been scheduled at O'Hare, according to OAG. However, that figure also doesn't include a slew of canceled flights at United, which tries to complete 98 percent of its schedule on a given day.