There aren’t a lot of airports in the US that do a good job of thinking about the future. Sure, some airports can pretty up their terminals (that’s you, JFK, LaGuardia, LAX, San Francisco), but few if any also adequately prepare for future runway needs. Chicago’s O’Hare is one that has remarkably done both, though naturally, at great cost. With its massive runway relocation project nearing completion, the airport has announced a big terminal expansion to match. You may have heard about American taking issue with a small piece of this deal, but don’t mind that. It’s going to happen regardless.
Chicago’s old runway alignment was a complete mess. It had 3 sets of parallel runways that went in opposite directions. That was great when wind shifted, but it didn’t give nearly as much capacity as you’d like to have at an airport with six runways. So, the airport set out to fix that problem by creating an incredible six parallel runways going east/west in the direction of the usual prevailing winds. At the same time, it would keep two cross runways just in case the winds required it.
Today, the airport is getting close to its end goal. You can see it here.
When the last runway and the extension (in blue) open in the next couple years, O’Hare’s 6 parallel runways will provide a much greater amount of capacity than the airport ever had before. But there’s something else really important that happens here. See that southwestern-most red runway? That is 15/33, and at last check, it was set to be decommissioned this year. That’s sad in that it’ll make taxi times longer for United travelers who used to get on to 33 and jet west, but it also removes a barrier blocking terminal expansion. As you can see, when that one goes, there is a whole lot of land that can be developed.
That’s where this new terminal project comes in. This will increase O’Hare’s gate count from 185 to around 220 which is an impressive amount of growth. Here’s how it’ll look.
Now let me walk you through this to the best of my understanding.
- Terminal 5 is currently home to all international arrivals and most foreign airline international departures. (United, American, and their close partners usually depart from their own terminals even though arrivals have to be in Terminal 5.) There is currently a 9-gate expansion (#1) in progress that will open in 2021. Once this project is done, the facility becomes mixed domestic and international with rates and charges now being the same at any terminal. (There’s currently a premium to operate in Terminal 5.) All the international airlines that are not aligned with American or United will remain in Terminal 5. Delta will move in there from Terminal 2, joining its SkyTeam and joint venture partners Air France/KLM/Virgin Atlantic/Korean. The low cost carriers will all leave Terminal 3 for Terminal 5. As of now, that includes Frontier, JetBlue, and Spirit. (Little Air Choice One and its subsidized flights move over too.) I’m assuming Alaska will join them over there, but I suppose it’s also possible Alaska could find a home in Terminal 3 with American. In essence, Terminal 5 becomes the “cats and dogs” terminal.
- Over in Terminal 3 (the red one), American is already building a little 5 gate addition (#2) that opens this summer, but it’ll grow even further when all the cats and dogs move out to Terminal 5. American will take over the remaining gates.
- The old Terminal 2 (the translucent purple one), will be demolished and in its place will be a new international terminal (#3) that will serve American, United, and their joint venture and alliance partners. This will be a huge improvement since today international arrivals are forced into Terminal 5, far from the domestic gates. This should dramatically reduce the time and hassle needed to make connections.
- Once 15/33 is gone, that’s when the home of United, Terminal 1, goes on steroids. There will be a new concourse built (#4) that extends the existing C gates (westernmost blue gates) down to the south. (It’ll also be offset a bit to the west presumably to allow for added clearance needed for widebodies operating from Terminal 2 to taxi out at the same time.) Then there will be another concourse built to the west (#5). All of these will be connected by an underground walkway, and they will connect over to Terminal 2 as well. This may look like pure growth for United, but it’s not. Remember that United has a sizable regional operation in Terminal 2 that will need a new home.
In the end, this will add gates for everyone. United gets more. American gets more. And yes, all those low cost carriers can have more as well. It also makes for a better operation for connecting passengers, and it leaves plenty of room for growth out to the west. So everyone’s happy, right? No.
It sounded like all major stakeholders were onboard until American balked. See, when Delta moves into the new extension in Terminal 5 in 2021, Delta’s 8 old gates in Terminal 2 are up for grabs. American says it was told those would all be “common-use” gates for anyone to use. But the final deal says United gets 5 of those while only 3 remain common-use. Now American is pouting and wants 3 more gates built to even things out.
There’s a lot of he-said/she-said going on here, and frankly, I’m not interested in figuring out which side is right. All I care about is whether this has the potential to scuttle the whole project or not. Fortunately, that answer is no. As noted in this article, American can either sign the lease or not, but the project is going ahead. Maybe American just thinks this is one last chance to squeeze out a couple more gates before committing. I don’t know.
What I do know is that by the time this is done, Chicago will have effectively rebuilt its airport and prepared it for the future. That’s something other airports around the country need to do, but few seem to have the willingness or ability to actually push forward. Good work, Chicago.