November 05, 2000 Chicago Sun-Times

Plane-stacking plan at O'Hare criticized

November 19, 2000

A controversial effort to reduce delays at O'Hare Airport by stacking incoming airplanes may have its broadest test around the busy Christmas travel season.

Critics say piggybacking is designed to stuff more aircraft into dangerously crowded O'Hare, which has endured horrendous delays over the last two years.

But those overseeing the Federal Aviation Administration program, called Compressed Arrival Procedures, insist it would not increase flights. Rather, officials say, the initiative should get planes on the ground more quickly, trimming travel times and saving airlines money on fuel.

"CAP doesn't do anything to increase the capacity of the airport. I know that's always a concern of people," said Doug Powers, air traffic manager at the FAA's Terminal Radar Approach Control center in Elgin. "It's an efficiency."

By stacking planes 1,000 feet or more apart vertically well before they reach O'Hare, rather than lining them up horizontally, one plane after another, as is usually the case, "it lets the rush start a little earlier and end a little earlier," Powers said.

Joe Karaganis doesn't buy it. He's an attorney for the Suburban O'Hare Commission, which fights noise and expansion.

"When you decrease delays, you automatically increase capacity," he said, questioning the safety of stacking planes. He said the FAA wants to cram more planes into O'Hare to prevent a third airport from becoming a reality in the far south suburbs.

He said an FAA plan to rearrange local airspace, which will be the subject of a Dec. 18 public hearing, is part of the same agenda.

The agency has tested its stacking procedures on the southeast, southwest and, most recently, northeast arrival corridors. The earliest tests, which began in 1997, found that stacking shaves several minutes off flight times. Results from the northeast corridor tests are not ready.

Even so, the agency plans in December to go ahead with its most ambitious test.

A 180-day experiment that will allow controllers to alternate piggybacking among all three routes should begin in mid- to late-December, said Jeff McCoy, traffic management officer at the Elgin facility.

"The test we want to run for 180 days is to determine if it's going to be a valuable program and is it going to work on a daily basis," he said.

Powers added, referring to the new test: "There is no intent to run all three [routes] at the same time. We will have the ability to pick and use any of the three that were tested, but only one at a time."

Agency officials said the northwest corridor has not been tapped because the backup radar coverage there is the weakest.

Officials also said the Christmas travel crunch had no impact on the timing of the test. But one air traffic controller who handles O'Hare-bound flights thinks otherwise.

"We're coming into one of the busiest times of the year, and they don't want the same fiasco as they had" earlier this year with delays, he said.

"They're under so much pressure to get planes on the ground."