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

American, ORD - Chicago/O'Hare, United

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

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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 for the ground transportation into and out of the airport. I know we are talking project budgets in the Billions here but a full scale rebuilding of the entire terminal complex into a clean and efficient layout like ATL or DEN would be icing on the cake.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. Not sure where the idea that atl is terrible comes from, its a fast connection and its 10 minutes from parking the car to security, so its not that bad.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

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

        1. 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 hotel shuttle to SFO and the train to San Francisco each day.

          1. 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.

  3. 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?

    1. Grichard – I don’t know the details of the taxi plans, but I would assume they’ve thought this through as best they can with the space they have. On the south side, there is a way to taxi around the two southern runways, and there’s also a center taxiway between the top two on the south side. So it looks well-designed. On the north side, I’m not sure what the final state will be once they finish the work but presumably they’ll have similar layouts if they can.

      1. Obviously, you have not been to ORD lately. The north end taxi sometimes can be as long as the flight itself. You land and then taxi around hangar row, past several service buildings and finally to the terminal. It’s 15 to 20 minutes on a good day.

        1. Davey – Of course that’s the case, because the middle runway on the north side hasn’t opened yet. Once that does, things change.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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 seriously, so they decided to throw them a bone.

    3. 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.

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

      1. 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?????????????

    4. South side Guy – This isn’t about common use. It’s about American wanting to keep the gate gap between United and American smaller. United sent me docs about proposals that were made long ago for United to get those 5 gates, so there was certainly discussion about it. American noted that the lease in early Feb showed them as being common use, but a week later, it had been updated to have the 5 go to United. So clearly there were talks between United and the city, and American knew about those. But American didn’t get any final confirmation until it was quietly slipped in just before the deadline. Who’s at fault? I have no clue.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

    1. 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?

      1. 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 carbon emissions. I know my comment may be very unwelcome on a blog like this but unwelcome or not it’s a fact. Perhaps technology will advance to the point where planes can fly without pouring massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But there’s little prospect of that at this time.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

  7. 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?

    1. Bill Hough – You’re counting right. If there was a restriction on the number of runways, that’s gone now. As for Peotone, I think it’s safe to call that dead and buried.

      1. Peotone was taken off life support long ago. That idea is so dead that’s it has turned to coal.

  8. 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.

  9. 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 zero” at ORD after they have engaged in transactions at other airports that will not be undone.
    It is also worth noting that American has managed to maintain pretty close local share parity with UA even with a gate disadvantage.
    There are a lot of unknowns about how the ORD plan will move forward but it will create a more level playing field for all airlines and eventual growth in air traffic for the Chicago region and all of the airlines that want to serve ORD, something that ORD is doing better than some of the other older coastal airports. ORD does have enough land to work with to be able to do bold things and they also realize that air travel to some cities will hit a plateau in the near future if runway and terminal capacity doesn’t increase. ORD has or is addressing both of those things.

  10. 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.

  11. 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 bargaining away runway expansion with its noisy neighbors to the north.

    SFO is actually further ahead of its compatriots in terms of maximizing what it has. It has built or rebuilt most of the airport over the last 20 years. Once the new T1 is completed that just leaves the Terminal G and T3 expansions at some future date. LAX still has years of construction ahead of itself to fix a lot of its infrastructure needs. LGA is just getting going on that. JFK is somewhere in-between.

    I get it that to “pretty up” the terminals, to use your happy phrase, doesn’t solve putting planes on the ground or in the air which is going to result in a hard cap on how many flights an airport can handle. But these airports are hamstrung by forces outside of their control.

    1. 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.

    2. Doug Swalen – I disagree. If SFO had the political willpower, it could fix its runway problem by moving the runways further apart and going further into the Bay. LAX couldn’t even muster enough political will to push its northernmost runway further up to install a center taxiway for safety reasons, so good luck pushing for another runway. LaGuardia and JFK could expand if they wanted to, but they don’t even seem to be trying. This is all about political desire and willpower, and in those areas, they dont’ have it.

      1. Getting the SFO runways right would take approval from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. BCDC is notorious for not approving any fill of the bay whatsoever under any circumstance. I don’t want to say it’ll never happen, but in the current political climate, and with mitigation costs in the billions for filling in acres of the bay, I don’t think it’ll happen in our lifetimes.

  12. 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.

  13. 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 the same shape as when they opened in the 60s. 1860s, that is.

    1. 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)

  14. 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 know!

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

    3. jaybru – The newest runway will be 27C. So it’s the 27s on the north side and the 28s on the south.

      1. Thanks, makes sense. I see from the FAA maps, the 27 runways line up as 273.6 degrees, and the 28s, as 273.5 degrees. Having 6 parallel runways must make for a lot of fun for the ATC and pilot folks.

    4. 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

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

    2. Wild Bill – American won’t walk. Instead they will become a non-signatory user of the airport, so it’ll be more expensive for them. They’d be incredibly stupid to refuse to sign. I assume this is just an effort on their part to squeeze another 3 gates out before committing.

  15. 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 the construction trades will more than offset the damage done to Hizzhonor as a consequence of the police’s relationship with the African American community.

    I question seriously whether anyone other than the Patronage Army that follows the Mayor and the Construction Trades will benefit. ORD is competitive with six other United hubs for international service (IAD, EWR, IAH, LAX, SFO and DEN) and five other AA hubs (DFW, LAX, JFK, PHL and CLT) for that line’s international service. I really question how much demand exists for new air service to a community in which its government’s public pension deficit has a more than $250 billion (that’s billion, with a “B”) shortfall and in a state where 40,000 people (net) a year are fleeing.

    You can make a pig as pretty as you want it to be, but as long as Illinois is an economic disaster, O’Hare is still a patronage pig.

    1. 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..

  16. 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..

  17. 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.”

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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

  22. 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

  23. Fuck o hare!! it has made life miserable for the people that live around and near the airport. Since they have changed the runways noise complaints have increased dramatically. The quality of life around here has also dropped dramatically with the constant noise in the air which can become so loud that you have to stop a conversation until it passes.

  24. Effective on October 12, 2022 Delta moves from T2/E-Concourse Gates E7, E9, E11, E14 thru E 17 over to T5/M-Concourse Gates M2 thru M11.

    Alaska moves from T3/G-Concourse Gates G4 & G6 over to T2/E-Concourse Gates E15 & E17

    United will receive Gates E7, E9, E11, E14 & E16.

    The new satellite concourses are still awaiting FAA & USDOT Approval

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