January 28, 2001 Chicago Tribune

January 28, 2001

Love it or hate it, Chicago has been at the crossroads of aviation for decades. If you want to get just about anywhere in the nation, sooner or later you wind up navigating the endless corridors of O'Hare International.

That has been a wonderful economic boon for Chicago, for the suburbs, for northeast Illinois. But that is changing. The implications for the future economic health of the region are immense and ominous.

The regions that thrive in the 21st Century will be those that accommodate the anticipated near doubling of air traffic over the next decade. It is outrageous that the political stalemate here over airport expansion means Chicago won't be one of them.

Where's Mayor Richard Daley? With his head in the sand.

Where's the business community? Cowering in fear of the mayor.

Where's Gov. George Ryan? Who knows.

The Chicago region must have a plan to capture its share of the future aviation market, be that a larger O'Hare International Airport, a new airport, an expansion of the airfield in Gary, more flights at Midway Airport, or a combination of all those.

Right now, the region has no prayer of moving on such plans because of the damnable political stalemate.

Daley opposes building a third airport outside of his city because it would be outside of his political control. Daley denies using his clout with a friendly Clinton administration in Washington to hamper development of a proposed airport in Peotone. But the fact remains the Clinton administration buried Peotone.

George Ryan--and before him Jim Edgar--has veto power over new runways at O'Hare. Suburban opposition, predominantly Republican, to expanding runways has foreclosed that option. Just last week Sen. Peter Fitzgerald weighed in, pandering to O'Hare opponents by grilling Transportation Secretary-designate Norman Mineta on O'Hare expansion.

Come on boys, cut out the games. This is critical.

For years, the politicians have fought each other to a grudging stalemate--you want Peotone, go build it, says the mayor of Chicago. You want new runways at O'Hare--over our dead bodies, scream the suburbanites and Republicans. Meanwhile nothing happens.

That's not entirely true. Nothing happens here. But at airports around the nation, there is plenty of action as other regions profit from the gridlock in Chicago.

New runways have been built, are under construction or are in the planning stages at 18 of the nation's 29 largest airports. That includes Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

Chicago is missing from this list.

Several years ago, Delta Airlines shifted much of its O'Hare-connecting traffic to Cincinnati, a thriving hub some call "Cincy instead." In September, a frustrated American Airlines began to shift connections away from O'Hare. If the airline succeeds in buying the assets of TWA, you can bet your frequent flyer miles the TWA hub in St. Louis will become a major transfer point for American flights. The most successful new airport built in the U.S. in the last decade? Denver's Stapleton International. Chicago may be United Airlines' hometown, but Denver is where United's planes are going.

Why pass through Chicago if you don't have to?

Daley's response has been to act as if none of what happens outside the borders of Chicago much matters. Ignore it and it will go away. He has poured $3.2 billion into his ballyhooed World Gateway Program at O'Hare, throwing up more gates, more terminals, more parking garages, more people movers. It includes more of everything except the improvements that would make O'Hare more navigable and would capture more business. A new runway. A western access road that would connect the western suburbs directly to O'Hare.

Daley knows what is needed. But that would ruffle the opposition. They might try harder to build Peotone. Best to keep everybody quiet.

Here's what must happen. End the stalemate. Get moving on the plan to secure the jobs and dollars brought in with Chicago's leadership in aviation. Do it.