Chicago O’Hare Takes Steps Toward the Future With Massive Expansion That American Can’t Derail

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.

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Dan
Guest

RIP Terminal 2. I did some TDY for a UAX carrier at ORD about 17 years ago. Back then, the UAX gates at T2 were a complete sh!t hole and an embarrassment to the operation. I never figured out how something that terrible could exist right underneath the nose of WHQ.

Despite the fact the place was a real hole, I’m going to miss it anyway. RIP.

Eric A.
Member
Eric A.

Wonder if I saw you in the Red Romper Room under F5 lol.

It amazes me that (a much smaller) UA ran an omni-directional hub with a fleet ranging from (classic) 747s to 737s out of that T2 mess.

A
Guest

I think there are some airports that plan appropriately for the future. Those are the ones that rebuilt entirely and/or moved. Places like DEN, AUS, ATL, even DTW to an extent. The issues with ORD or JFK or LAX is they are space constrained and older airports. In NYC or LA just moving an airport isn’t reality but I think few can argue that DEN isn’t better off today for having done what they did 30 years ago. I really like this plan for the runways at ORD and they are certainly making the terminals better, but they do nothing… Read more »

Kilroy
Guest
Kilroy

Maybe it’s changed in the past few years, but the train from ORD to the Loop Downtown was pretty efficient. Unless you’re talking about taking a car/cab/Uber into the airport, in which case I would disagree with ATL’s efficiency in that regard, after waiting 20 minutes to go the final 200 yards to the terminal over the holidays.

Seanny
Guest
Seanny

The last few times I went to Chicago the Blue Line L was definitely faster than a cab. Even with all the stops!

Kilroy
Guest
Kilroy

Yup. When I went there for business travel in 2010, I initially took a cab, but was pointedly told by people at the office that while they had no problem with the expense of the cab, the train was faster, and they were right. Only downside is that getting to the O’Hare train station from the rest of the airport requires a good bit of walking. I’m also fond of the train from SFO into the city. While I haven’t taken that for business, I did spend a personal trip in an SFO hotel (much cheaper) and then took the… Read more »

DAB
Guest
DAB

I only use BART if I have meetings in downtown SF, or Oakland for that mater. Parking downtown is too expensive and painful. SFO has that one right.

Ed in Wisconsin
Guest
Ed in Wisconsin

Ground transportation still appears to be a big gap. Existing roadways are full much of the day. While not LAX gridlock, it can be sluggish getting in/out of ORD. Proposed new (expensive?) train service is a long ways out, but CTA trains could beef up capacity. The new rental car center/remote parking will pull off some internal airport traffic. But at the end of the day, airfield improvements far outstrip any (at least published) ground transportation upgrades.

Anonymous
Member
Anonymous

Not sure exactly how it will work, but part of the new western access to O’Hare has already been built and stops just short of the western perimeter. Called the O’Hare – Elgin expressway (now I-390 https://www.illinoistollway.com/projects/eowa/illinois-route-390-project) it neither went to Elgin or O’Hare! But, it will!

Dale
Member
Dale

I would argue that ATL nor DEN are efficient for O and D traffic. From your car to the gate is forever. And really ATL?? You stop running the train in the wee hours, but you have the most flyers coming in and out of your airport in the world? That’s completely unacceptable. I can’t believe the mighty DL hasn’t joined with WN to stop that pratice.

JuliaZ
Member

I fly in and out of DEN all the time (55k last year mostly between DEN and SEA) and find that car to gate times with PreCheck are pretty good there. Not as good as SEA but better than LAX, ORD, JFK, IAD for sure. ATL is awful and I’m glad to skip that whenever I can.

grichard
Guest

Are the taxi patterns for all these parallel runways sensibly designed? In Atlanta, it’s rare to cross an active runway while taxiing, despite multiple parallel runways. I imagine this is a big help to keep things moving. Will Chicago’s plan have similarly designed taxi patterns?

South side Guy
Guest
South side Guy

Cranky,

I can’t help but feel like you really think American is wrong here. In all the research I have done it certainly looks like UA was very unethical in their practices. Why wouldn’t the world want those 8 gates left for commons use? Seems that is a smart way to be flexible and foster competition.

haolenate
Guest
haolenate

I believe all of Terminal 2 is actually under a master lease with United, so technically all 8 gates should probably go back to them.

Captoza
Guest
Captoza

There’ s been so much gate realignment at ORD over the years, it gets really confusing at times. For example: AA once had gate F12 in 1990’s, OZ had gates F8 & F10, G6 & G8 (prior to TW merger), AC had gate G1, UA used G6 & G8 (prior to OZ)

It’s almost like the movie Airplane…….Now arriving at gate?????????????

Bill from DC
Guest
Bill from DC

That’s correct, I read that elsewhere as well.

gregm
Member
gregm

City Hall has emphasized that all of the ORD leases expire in May, 2018, and that is what makes his overhaul possible.

TimH
Member
TimH

Keep in mind that the agreement is getting written by City Hall. Might they be inclined towards UA, with its headquarters half a mile away, instead of an airline based in Texas? Sure, but remember that AA is getting 5 extra gates first. (AA is paying for those gates directly, but how much can a gate cost to build vs. the revenue you get from it over several decades?) My bet is that it was UA unhappy that AA got a chance to get more gates first and WAS threatening something seriously enough for the city’s negotiators to take them… Read more »

Bill from DC
Guest
Bill from DC

I didn’t see anything unethical, I thought it was just a return of gates that UA formerly ceded to the airport. Regardless, never a drama free moment at As the ORD World Turns.

Bill from DC
Guest

CF, this is a great summary. I read several articles including those in the Chicago Tribune and this was by far the most concise description of the changes from the current state and expected future state.

herb
Member
herb

Another nail in our collective coffin. Scientists are saying that civilization as we know it won’t exist before the end of the century unless we cut greenhouse gases immediately and drastically and here we are expanding airports when flying is the worst climate offender and we hear not a peep. Nice work Chicago.

Currently mobile excuse any typos

Chris Lobdell
Guest
Chris Lobdell

What’s your solution then? How am I supposed to travel from Chicago to London for the week? By boat?

Also, the greenhouse gases are being generated primarily by the aircraft, not the airport. Airports have already cut their greenhouse gases. Anyone remember diesel powered APUs?

herb
Member
herb

I don’t know how critical it is for you to fly. All I know is that as long as we put our own convenience ahead of the survival of our planetary atmosphere no one will be around to fly anywhere in a century or less. Airlines won’t be able to expand their flights if they have no place to take off and land so that’s why we need to stop airport expansion. The analysis done by the Brits shows that they cannot add a third Heathrow runway and still meet their climate commitments unless they cut back on everyone else’s… Read more »

Bobber
Guest
Bobber

Sad, but not surprised, to see how poorly received your posts are, herb – I thought Brett’s audience to be a little more measured than that. I am one of those hypocrites who flies quite a bit (for work), yet totally understands the destructive contribution to the environment. We are simply leaving a legacy of devastation for the next generations.

Bill Hough
Guest
Bill Hough

If global warming is such a problem, then the rich people who are telling us it’s a problem need to start acting like there’s a problem. First thing they can do is stop with the jet-setting to global warming conferences in those carbon-spewing private jets. Did you see all the Gulfstreams at Davos? Next time, try web conferencing.

Richard
Guest
Richard

Deep breaths. You will see the sun tomorrow, I promise.

Bill Hough
Guest
Bill Hough

Don’t forget long-closed 5341 foot Runway 36, which didn’t seem to serve much purpose at all. Speaking of runways, I thought that the total number of runways had to stay the same at ORD, but it seems like the overall total is up by two. Am I counting wrong?

And, burning issue of the day, where does this leave Peotone?

Jay
Guest
Jay

Didn’t see it mentioned but it is also claimed that Terminals 1 & 3 will be completely remodeled with wider councourses, and larger gate and hold areas.

Tim Dunn
Member
Tim Dunn

Thanks for the succinct and complete look at the whole terminal and runway situation at ORD just as you have done for other airports including LAX. It isn’t worth beating the issue about AAL’s inability to get more gates but it does require remembering that they lost gates on several occasions because of DOJ required divestitures as part of the US merger as well as gate transactions with both DL and UA, the latter involving a gate swap involving ORD and LAX. It is now hard to understand how AA feels they should be allowed to “reset the clock to… Read more »

Prashanth Kuchibhotla
Guest
Prashanth Kuchibhotla

Parallel runways North and South of a group of terminal islands. All plans lead to a form of ATL’s structure, the gold standard for hub design.

Doug Swalen
Guest

I thought the sarcastic shot at other airports was kind of a cheap one. Most of those airports have huge problems with runway expansion that are out of their control. It’s not like LAX, SFO, LGA, or JFK are just saying, “Eh…we don’t need more or longer runways”. SFO would love to fix its runway problem and eliminate the single runway in the fog problem that perpetually plagues it. But we all know…or those of us who know anything about this situation know…that it’s largely out of SFO’s hands. LAX is a bit of a different matter since it keeps… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Airports = government. Cities= government. Municipalities= government. Port authorities= government.
SFO = Unlimited room for expansion.

Think we all know why SFO is not expanding.

I see what Cranky means.

Bjorn
Member

It will be interesting to see if O’Hare does anything to integrate the new central terminal with the literal bus gates in (former) Terminal 4 (the Bus/Shuttle Center). From this station, frequent coach service runs to most cities within 200 miles or so, effectively freeing up air and gate capacity for AA and UA for longer routes.

My experience is that the path from T2 to T4 is the most confusing, with multiple turns and elevators; T3 is the furthest while T1 is the shortest and easiest.

haolenate
Guest

I think the reason Terminal 2 has remained an utter sh*thole is because United is actually the leaseholder on those gates, concourses and Terminal, which is why it doesn’t surprised me when Delta leaves, those gates revert back to United, I believe. All of them. It had an agreement with DOA to lease a chunk of those gates out when United leveled Terminal 1 to build its “Terminal of Tomorrow” in the late 80s. That’s why AA was able to make drastic changes to G, H, and K concourses at ORD, and could be why T2 and E/F are in… Read more »

Captoza
Guest
Captoza

F8 & F10 (now gates different numbers) were originally added on by Ozark and were nice back then (1979 – 1984 until OZ traded those with UA for G6 & G8)

jaybru
Member
jaybru

Excellent show, Cranky. Looks like there is a 27R and a 27L, and a 28R, a 28C, and a 28L. I guess the newest runway will be another 28, but 28-what? When you have more than 3 runways at the same diagonal, how do you designate the 4th, 5th, etc. runways with something more than R, C, and L. I assume you can never fool around with actual diagonals, but the tag-on? Like maybe the middle two 28 runways might be called CR–Center-Right and CL–Center-Left? Are there any other US airports with more than 3 parallel runways? Heavy stuff, I… Read more »

Captoza
Guest
Captoza

ORD Runways 28R/10L (ex 27L/9R), 15/33 (ex 32L/14R), 27L/9R (ex 27R/9L)
22L/4R & 22R/4L weren’t renumbered/designated

grichard
Guest
grichard

I could be wrong, but I think that yes, you just fool around with the heading designations. ATL’s runways are 8L, 8R, 9L, 9R, and 10. To my untrained eye, runway 10 certainly doesn’t look as if it’s 20 degrees off from 8L or 8R.

zdcatc12
Member
zdcatc12

Actually it would only have to be 11 degrees off, i.e. 089 for RY 8 and 100 for RY 10. Correct that you can’t have anything other than L, C and R. DFW does the same with their parallels, 17 and 18.

grichard
Guest
grichard

Really? I would have assumed that they’d have to truly be >15 degrees apart. I would have imagined that 89 would round to 9.

Tim Dunn
Member
Tim Dunn

jay,
ATL’s 5 runways are parallel or pretty close to it and have designations in pairs of 8-26/9-27/10-28 with R or L thrown in where necessary. ATL is planning on a sixth parallel as well.
It is a tribute to ORD that they were able to get their runways realigned in this present day and age.
The issue w/ other airports is that some airports just don’t have the room and others would never succeed at the environmental reviews in order to build a new runway.

http://aeronav.faa.gov/d-tpp/1803/00026AD.PDF

Wild Bill
Guest

CF, If American walks who will step in and fund their committment?

Nathaniel
Member
Nathaniel

American can’t walk. I don’t get these ideas people have lately that airlines like Delta and American can just get up and leave hubs. There are no other airports out there that have the capacity, infastructure, or geographic location to replace Atlanta for Delta or Chicago for United.

Wild Bill
Guest

Nathaniel, I was not alluding that American would pull-up stakes. I meant that their operation would remain as-is without being part of the new vision.

Dave
Member
Dave

Crankster, this is Chicago. The $8.5 billion they say it will cost will be $12 billion after the cronies, unions and other hangers-on who are close to the Rahmfather (our Mayor) get paid off or take their cut. The fact of the matter is that for all of the things you discuss, the only reason this project is being considered is the Rahmfather needs to tame the city’s unions in advance of the 2019 Mayoral elections. He has a huge problem in the African-American community (something to do with hiding evidence in a police involved homicide) and the spoils to… Read more »

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

There will be plenty of benefits once this is complete for the city and state. Although ORD is completely a city run affair, the state has very little to do with it,

But even if you are 100% correct and Illinois and Chicago cannot correct the economic disaster, this still needs to be done as ORD will continue to be the best way to get into southern WI or northwestern IN..

Rhhett
Member
Rhhett

Airports need additional revenue to expand the infrastructure for the future.. an increase in PFC that A4A and the majors are whining about would go a long way to help that happen. An interesting story would be telling how airports fund infrastructure development like Chicago..

Tim Dunn
Member

What to make of this? UA trolling or validation of AA’s claims?

Wrote UA VP Hanna: “This agreement is a positive development for the people of Chicago, its businesses and all of the airlines operating at O’Hare. We worked in close collaboration with all these stakeholders to reach an outcome that will benefit everyone, and we did so because we believed it was vitally important that any agreement reflect United’s position as Chicago’s hometown airline.”

southbay flier
Guest

If you are flying to Chicago on someone other than AA or United and want to take the L into the city, you’re going to have to take a train from terminal 5 to the main terminal to catch a train.

Are there even jet ways at Terminal 5? I remember taking the stairs of a BA 747 back in 1989. It was also my only time ever using that terminal.

thetrain
Guest
thetrain

terrific post. gosh i will miss 33 on the westbound you really nailed that.

Alas, not the best post. Davey wins that. Every word is the stone cold truth.

Taxi times will be disastrous, like JFK, but thats the cost of progress.

Tim Dunn
Member

the Chicago Trib is reporting that AA and the Mayor’s office have reached a deal that includes accelerated construction of 3 additional gates.
If true, AA’s bet paid off. Good for them for fighting and shame on the City of Chicago for pushing them into a corner where they had to resort to threats of not signing a new lease in order to get what both parties ultimately agreed was fair.

Captoza
Guest
Captoza

Gotta love Chicago politics

Brace yourselves for the surrounding suburban lawsuits, it’s bound to happen sooner or later, unless Chicago is in compromise mode

CaptOza
Guest

It will be interesting to see where they relocate the Hangers that are in the path of “new” 27C/9C.

The old Ozark Hanger has been torn-down