Off-peak hours offer O'Hare wiggle room

By Jon Hilkevitch
and Rogers Worthington

Tribune Staff Writers
May 4, 2000

Despite criticism that O'Hare International Airport cannot handle the daily addition of hundreds of new flights expected because of changes in federal law, there are slow periods throughout the day for additional flights that could allow O'Hareto reclaim its position as the world's busiest airport.

The feat could be accomplished, according to experts, without exacerbating delays and without building more runways.

A review by the Tribune of air-traffic records at O'Hare indicates windows throughout the day-from 6 a.m. to at least 8 a.m., for instance, and again between 11 a.m. and noon and from 1 to 3 p.m.-when the number of flights in and out of the airport slackens.

"Those hours with lowest demand are more advantageous to put additional planes," said Rick Baird, a Chicago-based air-traffic safety consultant who reviewed flight schedules at O'Hare.

"But whether the public wants to travel at those times or not is another question," added Baird, formerly a planning manager with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Indeed, the intricate task of airline scheduling is predicated as much on what flights sell as it is on finding time slots when lulls provide opportunities to smoothly expand flight operations.

Then there is the task, particularly significant at a hub airport such as O'Hare, of fitting the schedules into a complex travel network in which the arrivals and departures at one major airport are linked to connecting flights from "feeder" airports.

Because of questions about whether passengers wantto fly during non-peak times, some experts predict that the airlines might simply add the approximately 500 extra daily flights anticipated at O'Hare starting this year to the already overburdened peak hours of 8 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 8 p.m.

They also warn that pushing the capacity envelope would lead to additional delays at the airport, particularly during less-than-perfect weather. The airlines are already limited by safety rules that keep planes several miles apart from each other.

O'Hare has been one of only four airports operating under so-called slot rules established in 1968 to limit flight delays at the airports. At O'Hare, takeoffs and landings were capped at 155 an hour between 6:45 a.m. and 9:15 p.m.

But last month, President Clinton signed a law that the airlines said was needed to keep Chicago competitive and meet the demand for flights. The caps are being removed in phases, beginning with international and commuter service. By 2002, when the process is completed, the current 2,500 flights a day at O'Hare could increase by more than 20 percent.

Those numbers could increase even more in the future. The city is in the early stages of planning two new terminals and 36 gates, but that process is expected to take eight to 10 years to complete.

"We'll take them as they come. Whatever they give us as demand, we'll try to work it out as best we can and keep it safe," said Tony Molinaro, an FAA spokesman in Chicago. According to a Tribune analysis of published airline schedules and air traffic records of the number of departures and arrivals at O'Hare, there is ample opportunity to add more flights.

An hourly breakdown of arrivals and departures at O'Hare for Monday, April 10, for example, showed a window between 7 and 8 a.m. when only 122 flights were scheduled, 34 fewer than allowed even under the caps. On Thursday, April 13, the total number of takeoffs and landings in the 11 a.m. to noon hour was 125.

FAA and airline officials say they are confident that at least 160 takeoffs and landings can safely occur each hour, and O'Hare frequently handles 200 an hour.

While the opportunities already exist for scheduling additional flights, noise-weary suburbanites are worried that the changes will mean more flights during the late evening and early morning "shoulder hours" of 6 to 7 a.m. and 10 to 11 p.m.

Airline officials respond that the concerns are unfounded.

"You are not going to see a lot of increase in those hours simply because people don't like to fly in those hours," said Bill Hood, a corporate relations executive with American Airlines in Chicago.

Hood did agree, however, that "there are plenty of [other] times in the day that you can have more flights out of O'Hare," though he declined to specify what hours the airline had in mind.

How the airlines deal with the elimination of the caps will become apparent later this month when they will have the authority for the first time to add international flights and commuter flights. The airlines will indicate how they plan an additional ramping up of flights in June, when they release their late-summer flight plans.

"We're still reviewing our options," said Joseph Hopkins, a spokesman for United Airlines, adding that the company's scheduling group is already working on the possibilities.

Craig Burzych, a veteran air-traffic controller at O'Hare Tower, said the system could easily accommodate more flights now.

"There is some room for us to handle more planes during the down hours on the day shift," Burzych said. "But the airlines won't go along because they run a hub-and-spoke operation that depends on moving passengers from plane to plane. If you schedule one of the additional flights, say from Omaha, to arrive at O'Hare at a non-peak time but then don't also bring in the connecting flights bound for Washington, D.C., New York, Boston and Miami during the same interval, passengers are going to face longer layovers.

"People don't like layovers, and that's understandable, but this is the situation where the airlines set themselves up for killer delays," said Burzych, who is local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at O'Hare.

Longtime observers of air-traffic patterns are predicting that most of the additional flights will be added to the peak hours of 8 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 8 p.m., when demand is highest. And the airlines don't appear, they say, to be doing anything to encourage off-peak travel, such as discounted fare pricing.

"If it is supply and demand, why aren't ticket prices substantially different for a 6 a.m. departure than a 10 a.m. departure?" said Brian Fallon, a NATCA safety representative with the FAA's Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in Westbury, N.Y., which oversees traffic at the John F. Kennedy International Airport.

For years, the FAA has quietly urged the airline industry, which bases its daily schedules on the weather being perfect, to cash in on the non-peak hours.

But despite its regulatory role, the FAA has not pressed the issue, explaining that it is the government's job to provide air-traffic services to the public and the sole responsibility of the airlines to make the business decision about when to fly.

"Our job is to try to accommodate everyone who wants to fly," said Bill Schumann, an air-traffic specialist for the FAA's public affairs office in Washington, D.C.

Governing how many flights can take off or land in a given hour are safety requirements that allow only one airplane on a runway at a time and require safe margins of separation between airborne aircraft.

If the system is overloaded, delays will occur-on the ground, in the air and at the gate. And delays cost the airlines money as well as the goodwill of passengers.

Delays and setbacks in the FAA's air-traffic modernization program raise additional doubts about Chicago's ability to compete as a major international hub airport 10 or 15 years from now without changes in airline scheduling or the construction of at least one more runway at O'Hare.

A technical program to tighten the sequence of aircraft approaching O'Hare was put on hold in 1998, and other tools to help sequence aircraft to make maximum use of O'Hare's existing runways is at least several years away, the FAA says. Critics say the complications, which include a cutback of when aircraft are allowed to land simultaneously on intersecting runways, already have reduced O'Hare's capacity by up to a third over the last 18 months.