By John Schmeltzer. Tribune staff writer Rogers Worthington contributed to this report.
May 2, 2000

O'Hare International Airport is poised to embark on a major renovation, moving maintenance facilities and the airport's massive heating and cooling plant and adding two new terminals and dozens of new aircraft boarding gates.

The construction, which will occur over the next eight years, stands to be a continuing headache for travelers through an airport that, while it may no longer be the nation's busiest, can be one of the hardest to travel through. Some work, such as the reconstruction of the Interstate Highway 190 entrance to O'Hare, already has begun.

In addition to increasing the number of boarding gates by at least 25 percent, the plan envisions the construction of a new general aviation terminal and a multimillion-dollar expansion of the airport's people mover. And officials are planning to build a parking garage in a remote lot and move the heating and cooling facility to make way for a new Terminal 4.

The $3.2 billion World Gateway Program of O'Hare renovation is intended to address the needs of both airlines and travelers for more flights and smoother connections in and out of the far Northwest Side airport.

Yet the program does not include a new western entrance to the airport, which airlines argue is necessary to alleviate traffic flow into O'Hare's single existing entrance. Nor does the program call for expansion of the seven existing runways, as has long been sought also by the airlines.

As a result, officials of United and American Airlines are preparing simultaneously to launch a major lobbying effort to persuade reluctant suburban mayors to approve a new runway at O'Hare. Failure to expand the capacity of the airport will result in increased congestion and higher ticket prices, according to Jim Goodwin, chairman and chief executive of UAL Corp., the parent of United Airlines.

"If the infrastructure won't support the capacity, then the capacity is going to have to be adjusted, which means we won't be able to satisfy the demand," Goodwin said. "And when you can't satisfy the demand with supply, the consumer is going to be harmed in two ways: They are going to be inconvenienced by congestion and they are going to be inconvenienced by higher prices."

The O'Hare makeover planned by the city is only a first step toward fulfilling demand for more flights, Goodwin said.

Thomas Walker, the city aviation commissioner, said, however, that "reducing delays caused by inefficient gate facilities at O'Hare will reduce congestion at airports throughout the nation."

Driving much of the redesign, according to the Chicago aviation department, are the larger planes now increasingly being used by airlines.

For instance, gate space now allocated for five average jets can only accommodate three of the new jumbo Boeing 777-200s, which are used for transcontinental and trans-Pacific and Atlantic flights.

"The World Gateway Program will alleviate those conditions by reconfiguring the airport to allow airlines to process increasing numbers of passengers and larger aircraft more efficiently," according to the aviation department.

Construction of Terminal 6, which will house domestic airlines not aligned with United or American, won't begin until 2002. Work on a rebuilt Terminal 2, to be used by United and members of its Star Alliance, and the new Terminal 4, to be used by American and members of its OneWorld Alliance, won't begin until Terminal 6 and the new heating plant are completed.

Airline officials say they are not going to sit idly while the city proceeds with the World Gateway Program. While Goodwin focuses on lobbying people, such as pushing Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder to approve a new runway, American officials say they are going to keep pushing for the construction of a western entrance to the airport.

"We're sensitive to the fact that airports generate traffic on the ground and generate noise in the air," Goodwin said. "If O'Hare doesn't change one iota, it is still going to take . . . an hour and a half to get back downtown from here. We have to find a solution to our traffic problems regardless of what happens at O'Hare."