By Jon Hilkevitch and Rogers Worthington, Tribune Staff Writers. Tribune staff writer John Schmeltzer contributed to...
April 20, 2000

United Airlines, which for years has voiced confidence that Chicago could accommodate unrestricted growth in air travel without the need for more runways or a state-backed airport in the south suburbs, on Wednesday called for the construction of one new runway at O'Hare International Airport.

The statement, in the wake of record air-traffic delays across the U.S. last summer and the prospect of hundreds of new flights daily at O'Hare as early as this summer, marked the first time the world's largest airline said O'Hare needs a new runway to ease congestion.

Chicago officials, who are in the early stages of a multibillion-dollar redevelopment of O'Hare's passenger terminals and aircraft gates aimed primarily at attracting more international travelers, countered that a new runway is not "immediately" needed to stay competitive.

Mayors in the northwest suburbs who have been working with the city and the airlines on airport noise and pollution issues, meanwhile, said they were caught off guard by United's announcement.

"That is contrary to everything the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission has talked about," said Palatine Mayor Rita Mullins. "United has not come to us. This is the first I've heard of it."

Added Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder: "We're still adamantly opposed to any additional runways."

UAL Corp. President Rono Dutta, who also said an additional runway is needed in San Francisco, made the controversial statement during a conference call about United's first-quarter financial performance. UAL is United's parent.

"O'Hare has been constrained for a long time," Dutta said. "Now the slots [limiting the number of flights permitted each hour] are coming off and there is technology that can improve capacity. But there still is a need for a new runway."

O'Hare has seven runways, but everything from weather to the types of incoming aircraft limit the number that can be used simultaneously. Another runway would allow controllers to keep at least three open for landings under almost any conditions. Currently, poor visibility often restricts arrivals to two parallel runways to avoid landing aircraft onto intersecting runways.

Dutta said severe congestion and delay problems have been growing exponentially throughout the U.S. aviation system over the last five years, "but nobody is paying any attention to it. It is scary how as a nation we are not waking up to how much of a crisis this is," he said.

United's call for the construction of a new runway came on the same day that the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago issued a report recommending immediate planning for construction of an additional runway at O'Hare, a process that can take five years. The report said additional runway capacity will be needed in 15 to 20 years.

But the Chicago Department of Aviation, after checking with Mayor Richard Daley, said it does not agree with either assessment.

"The city's position has not changed at all, even in light of Mr. Dutta's opinion," said Gilbert Jiminez, a spokesman for the Aviation Department. "We have an enhancement plan called the World Gateway program that is now undergoing federal vetting and looks at addressing our needs for the next 10 to 12 years. That is the only proposal on the table." Leaving City Hall some wiggle room, Jiminez added: "We disagree that a new runway is necessary immediately."

One suburban official said she was not surprised by United's new position on runways.

"Once the slot rule was lifted, it was only a matter of time before they would want another runway," said Virginia Kucera, a village trustee in Arlington Heights. "But they'll be meeting strong opposition from all the residents who live anywhere near O'Hare."