April 26, 2001 Chicago Tribune
FAA steps in to help settle O'Hare crisis
Task force urged to look at runways

Tribune staff reporters
April 26, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Singling out Chicago because delays at O'Hare International Airport are disrupting air travel across the country, the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday tried to break the stalemate over new runways at the airport.

Intervening in the debate between Mayor Richard Daley and Gov. George Ryan over boosting capacity at O'Hare, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey proposed creation of a Chicago task force similar to the one set up in 1991 to deal with delays.

"Chicago can do what San Francisco and Los Angeles are doing--reconfigure the existing runways," Garvey testified before the House Subcommittee on Aviation. "The task force allows you to look at a host of issues, and I don't think people should feel constrained by it because it's an opportunity to say, `How can we add to the capacity of this very important airport?'"

Members of the Daley and Ryan administrations said they would join the new panel. But the mayor and the governor Wednesday refused to budge from positions that have prevented a solution to the crisis.

Garvey's remarks came as the FAA released an unprecedented study detailing the capacity of the nation's 31 busiest airports. The analysis concluded that O'Hare is operating above capacity for at least 3 1/2 hours on average each day. The report also said air travel demands will grow three times faster than the airport's ability to meet the needs with technological advances over the next decade.

Garvey's recommendation to convene a task force of officials from Chicago, the state, the major airlines and the FAA comes amid growing impatience in Congress.

Legislation sponsored by Iowa's two senators is to be introduced in the Senate as early as next week to preempt Illinois law and order the construction of two new runways at O'Hare. State law requires the approval of the governor for new runways at O'Hare--a legal weapon the Republicans have used to block O'Hare expansion.

"We have a lot of federal legislators and other key opinion-makers who are being delayed because of O'Hare," said U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a member of the subcommittee. "An airport is clearly an interstate commerce, and if the federal government takes an exclusive interest in the policy of the expansion of the airfield, they have solid legal grounds to do that and there's nothing the state would be able to challenge."

"The threat is beginning to loom because when O'Hare sneezes, a lot of other airports get the flu," Kirk said.

The Bush administration prefers to avoid intervening in the local political dispute, but "the doomsday clock is ticking," said a White House official closely involved in aviation policy. "The first choice has always been local consensus: Let the local political bigwigs work it out. But as we get into the summer months, patience will run out."

Daley, Ryan standing firm

Daley and Ryan, both in Washington on Wednesday for two days of meetings with the Illinois congressional delegation, showed no signs of modifying their positions.

Daley has opposed the state's plans to build a third regional airport near south suburban Peotone. The mayor believes the city's nearly $4 billion program to build two new passenger terminals at O'Hare and up to 25 additional gates, but no new runways, postpones the need to further expand airport capacity in the Chicago area until 2012.

On Wednesday, Daley sidestepped questions when reporters pressed him on whether the FAA report changed his view.

"You know there's been delays there. Everybody realizes this. There's increased passengers, not only at O'Hare, but throughout the system. I think we're going to look at the report and respond to it," Daley said.

"Oh sure, it concerns everyone," Daley added. "But all the airports are in the same situation."

Ryan said the FAA findings only deepened his resolve to press for the Peotone airport.

"There's no surprises about this report. We all knew that O'Hare was overcrowded and overused. That's why we called for another airport," Ryan said.

Regarding a potential compromise, especially in light of the stampede to impose solutions on O'Hare, the governor said: "This is a business where you sit down and talk and compromise. Right now, the mayor and I are pretty well set in what we want to do. That doesn't mean we're not willing to sit down and talk with one another and try to figure out a compromise."

No growth in 3 decades

The capacity of the airfield system in Chicago has not been significantly expanded for almost 30 years while the number of flights has steadily climbed. The 1991 Chicago Delay Task Force recommended more than two dozen improvements at O'Hare. Some of the proposals were adopted, including extra holding pads to stage aircraft waiting to take off, angled taxiways to allow planes that have landed to exit runways more quickly, and new takeoff and landing procedures.

But the task force's main proposal to significantly reduce delays, building two new runways, never materialized.

The FAA's Garvey said Wednesday she hasn't given up "on the political willingness [between Daley and Ryan] to come to grips with this."

FAA officials said now that the capacity study has defined the problem, the new task force should quickly identify improvements needed on the airfield at O'Hare, in air-traffic procedures and in airline scheduling practices.

"We are not a mediator, but we do want to be part of the solution," said Peter Challan, the FAA's deputy associate administrator for air traffic services. Challan also said Chicago and state officials pledged to participate.

"I don't think this task force needs to be a yearlong process," Challan said. "I'm looking to get started in the next couple of weeks and to come up with some firm recommendations for enhancements in a matter of months."

Airlines question need

American Airlines and United Airlines, both of which participated in the 1991 task force, said they will be onboard this time too.

But officials of both airlines questioned the need for another study.

"We've been arguing for a new runway since the first Chicago delay task force," American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said.

Added United's Susana Leyva: "Band-Aid solutions that fall short of the needs of our customers are unacceptable. The burning issue for us is runways at O'Hare and other key airports around the country."

U.S. Rep. William Lipinski of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the aviation subcommittee, said he was undecided about the potential for progress by convening another task force.

He said, "We can probably squeeze some additional capacity out of O'Hare even without a new runway."

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  • [Chicago ATC News]