May 15, 2001 Chicago Tribune
O'Hare neighbors say they can handle noise

Tribune transportation reporter
May 15, 2001

Though critics of O'Hare International Airport claim airplane noise constantly rattles tens of thousands of nearby residents, a new Tribune/WGN-TV poll has found that roughly half the people surveyed who live close to the airfield say the roar of jet turbines doesn't bother them much.

But the poll of registered voters found opposition to building new runways is strong in the 17 communities nearest O'Hare because most voters think any expansion will surely lead to an increase in flights--even if airport officials promise otherwise.

By a wide margin, voters living near O'Hare believe that Chicago airport officials cannot be trusted to use additional runway capacity only for reducing delays and congestion at O'Hare, not for expanding the airlines' number of daily arrivals and departures, the poll results show.

In startling contrast to the stereotype perpetuated by both sides in the Chicago area's airport expansion battle, the survey indicates that a sizable segment of the people who have chosen to live inside the federally designated noise contour of O'Hare do not view themselves as jet-weary victims who are rabidly against airport development.

In fact, the vast majority of people polled rated O'Hare vital to maintaining the region's economic health.

"O'Hare was already there when I moved to Schiller Park 21 years ago, so I don't have any right to say, `You all stop that noise,"' said Mary Catomy, 48, a seamstress who works out of her home in the suburb, which abuts the airport.

Even so, Catomy said she's adamantly opposed to adding runways or flights at the airport because it could turn what is now a mild annoyance into a major problem.

"I joke with my customers that I can see the color of the stewardesses' underwear because sometimes the planes come in so low," Catomy said.

The Tribune/WGN poll of 600 registered voters in the northwest and west suburbs who live in the O'Hare noise corridor was conducted May 8-10. The survey was a corollary to another Tribune/WGN poll, conducted May 3-7, that asked opinions about O'Hare expansion of 898 registered voters statewide. Both surveys were conducted by Market Shares Corp. of Mt. Prospect.

Opposition to runway expansion diminishes among people who live away from the O'Hare flight paths, the polls found.

Across the collar counties and in suburban Cook County, opinion was evenly split about whether more runways should be built at O'Hare. Statewide, support for building new runways was stronger, with 41 percent in favor, 31 percent opposed and 29 percent expressing no opinion.

The most vigorous support for runways came from Chicago residents, who backed construction 60 percent to 21 percent, the polls found.

Potential compromise

Despite the geographic disparity reflected in the results, the polls also pointed toward a potential opportunity to shape a compromise on the thorny question of how to increase aviation capacity and reduce flight delays through northeastern Illinois.

Nearly six in 10 O'Hare-area residents said they would be willing to support new runways if the purpose was not to add flights but solely to ease delays and cancellations at the congested airport. Aviation experts say an agreement on new runways for O'Hare, which the city and airlines desperately want, could eventually be part of a larger strategy to solve regional air gridlock by building a third airport in Peotone, which the state has proposed, as well as expanding existing airports at Rockford, Milwaukee and Gary.

Consensus on that strategy has eluded political leaders in the state for nearly 20 years, and the survey found voters skeptical that it will be achieved. Even though most O'Hare-area residents said they could back runways if used only to ease delays, 76 percent said they doubted any promise to restrict flight growth at O'Hare would be kept.

"If the state builds a new superhighway, it will fill up fast with cars. The same thing will happen with more runways," said survey participant Sidney Jongleux of Des Plaines, who said he lives between two O'Hare flight paths. The 74-year-old semiretired purchasing agent, who has lived in the shadow of O'Hare since 1955, said the airport could be a lot better neighbor if early-morning flights were restricted.

"The eastbound flights start going over my house at 5 a.m. Why can't they space the planes out better during the day?" Jongleux said.

The polls were conducted in the aftermath of a recent analysis by the Federal Aviation Administration that determined that airline scheduling outstrips the runway capacity at O'Hare for at least 3 1/2 hours a day--and frequently for more than 8 hours when poor weather further reduces airfield capacity.

Underscoring the increasingly high stakes in the O'Hare expansion debate, members of a highly influential local business group, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, placed two-page advertisements in Monday's Tribune and other area newspapers calling on Mayor Richard Daley, Gov. George Ryan and legislative leaders to come to an agreement that would add at least one new runway at O'Hare. The chairman, president and chief executive officer of Tribune Co., John Madigan, also is chairman of the Commercial Club.

Support for Peotone

Ryan and other Republicans have strongly backed a plan to build a Peotone airport as the answer to the region's capacity woes. Peotone is favored by 39 percent of voters statewide, while 33 percent oppose the new facility and 28 percent expressed no opinion.

In the inner-ring suburbs near O'Hare, where the decibel levels from airplanes are the highest, 54 percent of voters said they back construction at Peotone, which would relieve congestion at O'Hare and Midway Airports.

Support for Peotone was strongest, 59 percent for versus 23 percent against, in Grundy, Kankakee, Kendall and Will Counties and in south suburban Cook County townships--areas not only closest to the proposed airport but also that stand to gain the most jobs and economic development from it.

The polls also showed great ambivalence among O'Hare-area residents about the airport in their midst. While some didn't like the noise and most opposed its expansion, 82 percent still said the airport is "very important" to the local economy.

Because of the potential for making airport noise even worse, slightly less than half of the airport's neighbors said it was very important to prevent the loss of O'Hare flights to other cities, and 53 percent said they oppose adding runways even if the limitation would harm future economic growth.

The Tribune/WGN poll of O'Hare-area residents measured sentiment in an area with a population of more than 400,000, which the FAA says is most affected by noise from takeoff and landing operations at the airport.

Bothered by noise

Over any given 24-hour period, the average noise level in the area, which includes part or all of 17 municipalities, exceeds 65 decibels. The FAA considers that noise level unacceptable over residential areas.

Surprisingly, 49 percent of those polled in the noise contour area said they find airplane noise is either not a serious problem or not a problem at all, while 51 percent said they found it to be a major or serious problem.

The closer people live to the airport, however, the more aggravating they find it.

Among those in Elk Grove Village, Des Plaines, Rosemont, Park Ridge, Bensenville, Franklin Park, Schiller Park, Wood Dale, Harwood Heights and Norridge--the closest suburbs to the airport in the FAA zone--65 percent said they found airport noise to be a serious or major problem and 46 percent said they were disturbed by airplanes about every day.

[Chicago ATC News]