Hundreds of new flights allowed for O'Hare

By John Schmeltzer
Tribune Staff Writer
April 20, 2000

New rules governing takeoffs and landings at O'Hare International Airport will allow United and American Airlines to add hundreds of new daily flights within a few months, federal officials say.

By summer's end, air traffic in and out of O'Hare could expand as much as 20 percent, adding 500 flights to the current 2,500 a day and possibly allowing O'Hare to reclaim its position as the world's busiest airport.

The expansion also almost certainly will increase jet noise and traffic congestion around the airport.

The likely surge in air traffic comes as no surprise to some suburban officials, who predicted a massive increase in operations last year as Congress debated legislation that allows flight limits to be phased out over the next several years.

"The goal is to provide unconstrained operations at that airfield," said John Geils, mayor of Bensenville, chairman of the Suburban O'Hare Commission and a staunch opponent of O'Hare expansion. "They are placing the flying public at risk."

But airlines believe the additional flights are needed to keep Chicago competitive and meet the soaring public demand for air travel.

Under the legislation, signed three weeks ago by President Clinton, as of May 1 airlines no longer will need approval from the U.S. Department of Justice to provide international service at O'Hare or add commuter service to small and medium sized cities aboard aircraft with fewer than 70 seats.

It didn't become clear how much capacity the airlines could add this year until this week, when the DOT issued new landing and takeoff rules.

O'Hare is one of only four slot-controlled airports in the country. The others are LaGuardia Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.

For years O'Hare has had the ability to handle more traffic but was prevented from doing so because of strict federal limits on landings and takeoffs. The new rules will lift limits on international and new commuter flights, allowing American and United to schedule domestic service at times when they previously could not.

Eliminating the international flight restrictions frees 174 positions for additional domestic landings and takeoffs, said Bill Moseley, a DOT spokesman.

In addition, Moseley said the new rules provide that 50 percent of the 600 commuter landing and takeoff slots used by American Eagle and the three United Express carriers can be converted into landing and takeoff positions for aircraft with fewer than 110 seats.

As a result of the rule change, the city aviation department has said it expects 50 additional international flights each week will begin flying here this summer.

Airline officials say that United and American, the two dominant carriers at O'Hare, are each poised to add 200 additional daily domestic flights, totaling more than 400 takeoffs and landings. This involves reallocating flights from underperforming markets to O'Hare. New service to small and medium-sized cities and additional commuter service will add as many as 100 more flights.

While United and American decline to describe their plans in detail, United President Rono Dutta acknowledged that "some capacity that was going to Denver this year might be moved to Chicago."

In another sign that capacity may be expanded, both carriers over the past several years have placed large orders for new planes with Boeing Co. and the European consortium Airbus Industrie of North America Inc.

The May 1 lifting of limits on international and commuter flights is the first step in a plan to remove all limits at O'Hare. Next summer, half the slot controls for morning domestic flights will be dropped. In 2002, the remaining slot controls will disappear. Similar increases in traffic are being allowed at the other three slot-controlled airports.

Expansion opponents say Congress, in enacting the new law, ignored their warnings. "The talk was 30 more flights," said Bensenville's Geils, who is backing a plan to build a new airport at Peotone. "But people don't read the fine print."

Geils was referring to a provision in the legislation permitting the DOT to award landing and takeoff slots for 30 additional daily flights to new carriers seeking to start service at the airport. Three airlines, Dallas-based Legend, Las Vegas-based National and Tempe, Ariz.-based America West have filed applications for those slot exemptions.

Some officials questioned whether O'Hare has enough capacity for the additional flights.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday backed away from past statements that additional capacity exists at O'Hare.

"I don't know that it is true anymore," an FAA spokesman said. "I asked the question and got different answers." He added that the FAA does not interfere with the airlines' scheduling decisions and that air-traffic controllers will "take the airplanes as they come and manage the system safely and as efficiently as possible."

In the wake of last summer's record airline delays, such assurances are unlikely to appease travelers or O'Hare's suburban neighbors.

"What happened to the promise that they were only going to have small incremental increases over the years?" said Park Ridge Mayor Ronald Wietecha. "That's just another promise thrown aside, as so many other promises have been in the past."

But both the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago and United said the capacity problem could be solved if the city would construct an additional runway at the airport.

Arlene Mulder, the mayor of Arlington Heights and the chairman of the city-suburban O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission, said the plans "far exceed the prediction we got from [the city of] Chicago.

"They have repeatedly conveyed to us that there would be minimal growth for the next several years," she said, pointing to a decline over the past few years in the annual number of operations.

A union official representing FAA air-traffic controllers, meanwhile, said he was "flabbergasted" that a major increase in flights at O'Hare, which he had expected to be a year to 18 months away, could materialize this summer.

"O'Hare is out of capacity. All the available gates and landing spots are full, beyond full actually during the peak travel hours," said Jim Poole, regional vice president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Under perfect conditions, the O'Hare tower already runs 210 takeoffs and landings an hour even when the slot rule was in effect. The lifting of slot restrictions doesn't magically increase the number of planes that can land on the runway stream."