Chicago Tribune

April 20, 2000

With all the political give-and-take over a third airport at Peotone, with all the acrimony about jet noise and about cronyism in the awarding of airport concessions, it's easy to loose sight of the big picture.

So it is refreshing--even if the message is alarming--when a gathering of the Chicago region's top business leaders clear their throats and remind all sides about the much larger game being played on the global stage.

That game is the burgeoning, multibillion-dollar business of international commercial aviation. The good news is that Chicagoland has what it takes to become a major player. (So do Atlanta and Denver.) The bad news is that we're about to blow it.

So suggests a new report, "The Future of O'Hare," commissioned by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. It predicts that O'Hare International Airport, despite the phase-out of federal "slot" limits on takeoffs and landings, does not have the physical capacity to handle the coming global traffic that otherwise would choose Chicago as its U.S. gateway.

According to forecasts developed by consultants Booz Allen & Hamilton, our region will forgo $10 billion a year in economic activity--and 110,000 new jobs--unless O'Hare expands to meet international demand. Specifically, the Civic Committee recommends that work begin immediately on a third runway that would reduce flight delays in bad weather.

Those, of course, are fighting words for some.

They are fighting words for O'Hare-area suburbanites tired of jet noise and skeptical that jets are getting quieter; for local elected officials, from the mayor of Bensenville to the president of the Illinois Senate and the minority leader of the House, and for the strange-bedfellow coalition that wants, unrealistically, to cap O'Hare and send new business to Peotone--a coalition ranging from U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Chicago) to pro-Peotone Republicans like Gov. George Ryan.

The Civic Committee, disappointingly, does not try to outline a political compromise. It does suggest Peotone could proceed as a point-to-point airport so long as O'Hare is free to grow as a domestic and international hub. Yet that, by itself, suggests a possible deal: Mayor Richard Daley and the Clinton administration would "lift the brick" off Peotone paperwork in return for state cooperation in expanding O'Hare. This would include more noise abatement and soundproofing of homes, and a western gateway to O'Hare that would economically energize neighboring suburbs.

As the aviation pie expands, it also may be time for a city-state airport authority, both to coordinate operations and to broaden political support for Chicagoland's No. 1 economic enterprise.

The O'Hare-Peotone standoff must end. And soon, before the bigger game is lost.