By Rosalind Rossi

None of three hearings to gather public input on proposed O’Hare International Airport runway changes were held in areas predicted to be hit with an onslaught of heavy air traffic under the plan, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis indicates.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it followed the rules on legally-required public hearings before it approved the $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program, which has since triggered skyrocketing O’Hare noise complaints.

But critics — and one U.S. congressman – are crying foul. 

The FAA’s failure to hold any required hearings in areas due for onerous air traffic “calls into question the process, and it’s aggravating,’’ said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. 

If the rules allow the FAA to sidestep adversely-impacted communities as hearing sites, the rules should be changed, said Quigley, who has been trying to persuade city and federal officials to address new O’Hare noise beefs.

“I am planning to analyze this and put forward meaningful changes that will require sufficient hearings focused in areas most impacted” by airport changes, Quigley told the Sun-Times.

The hearings were held 9 years ago but the result of those hearings — a dramatic shift in flight paths — didn’t launch until last October.

The FAA went “above and beyond” the guidelines by holding three public hearings on the environmental impact of the airport work — two more than were required, said Chicago-based FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.

The agency was looking for a certain kind of venue and an FAA order on public hearings doesn’t cite where they must be held, Molinaro said.

The three hearings covered more than jet noise and were “spread out geographically around the airport” so residents from 14 communities around O’Hare could easily attend, he said.

Jac Charlier, a leader of the Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition, said hearings should have been located in areas affected by the top issue.

“We have a bigger problem if the FAA does not realize noise is the number one issue,” said Charlier. “You have a federal agency holding what are essentially sham hearings.”

The FAA held the hearings in February 2005, when what one federal inspector general called “one of the largest and most costly reconfigurations of an airport in the United States” was a mere proposal stretched across literally millions of web pages. Eight years later it started bearing air-traffic fruit.

Last Oct. 17, O’Hare finally switched from using mostly diagonal runways to mostly parallel ones as part of project. The Chicago Department of Aviation contended the move was critical to expanding flight capacity at the nation’s second-busiest airport and to reducing O’Hare delays that were bottling up the U.S. air traffic system.

After the big switch, O’Hare noise complaints soared to record levels, particularly in Chicago, where some residents said they were blindsided by a blitz of planes over their homes — especially at night, when the single runway usually used for night arrivals brings planes in over the city.

Jet noise topped a list of O’Hare project concerns gathered in 2002 by the FAA to prepare for its environmental impact hearings, FAA documents show. FAA “noise contour” maps posted a month before the hearings indicated the runway overhaul would produce jet noise loud enough to qualify homes for sound insulation in areas directly east and west of O’Hare.

But all the hearings were north and south of O’Hare, where heavy noise was expected to diminish.

Two hearing sites stood to benefit from project’s runway shift, FAA maps indicate. The third was essentially unaffected by it.

Elmhurst, host to one hearing, has experienced the biggest drop in O’Hare noise complaints since the flight path conversion, a Sun-Times analysis indicates.

Another hearing was held in a part of Elk Grove Village that has a diagonal runway pointed right at it that will eventually be decommissioned under the O’Hare plan.

No serious jet noise was occurring in or predicted for the third location, in Niles, public hearing “noise contour” maps show.

More than 24,000 Chicago area residents will be subjected to serious jet noise by the time the O’Hare Modernization Program is completed in 2020 – or 6,267 more than before it began, FAA documents predict.

But only about 1,500 residents showed up at the three hearings — a turnout even the FAA conceded was “very light given the dense population” around O’Hare.

And by the end, reaction ranged from 3 to 1 to 4 to 1 in favor of the city’s proposal, FAA documents about the hearing note.

“You don’t need to be a brain surgeon. If you want positive feedback, go to the people that will be in your favor,” said Norridge Village President James Chmura.

Norridge has experienced the biggest jump in noise complaints since O’Hare launched its dramatic shift in flight paths, a Sun-Times analysis showed.

It was followed by Itasca, the city’s 41st Ward, Wood Dale and the 39th Ward as experiencing the biggest increases in noise complaints in the five months since the runway switch compared to the same five months a year earlier. None of the top five noise complaint areas were public hearing sites.

“Nobody wanted any yelling or screaming. That’s probably why they had

[the hearings] outside the affected areas,’’ said Chmura.

The hearings on the FAA’s draft Environmental Impact Statement were a key required point of public input in the O’Hare overhaul.

The impact statement itself refers to an FAA policy stating that the FAA “is committed to complete, open and effective participation in agency actions. The agency regards community involvement as an essential element in the development of programs and decisions that affect the public.’’

It also cites an FAA order saying that the FAA “must provide pertinent information to the affected community” and “consider the communities’ opinions.’’

However, Molinaro said, FAA guidelines don’t say where a public hearing has to be held.

“In other words, it could have been held in California?” asked Don Walsh, a 39th Ward resident of the Indian Woods neighborhood who says he has been bombarded with jet noise even though he lives east of the noise contour.

“They deceived the entire public with that process.’’

Molinaro said a host of environmental impacts were outlined at the hearings, not just jet noise fallout.

“Communities were interested in many topics, including land acquisition, air quality, water runoff, flood plains, surface and highway traffic, taxes and noise,’’ Molinaro said.

Although the FAA had identified jet noise as the top concern, Molinaro said a long list of topics was “equally important for residents to discuss” and “location was not dependent solely upon the noise contour topic.’’

Plus, the FAA wanted banquet facilities that could hold 1,000 people and contained three rooms — one for visitors to watch a 10-minute video, another to hold 50 poster boards about the project, and a third for offering comments to a court reporter, Molinaro said.

State and city officials, however, have hosted similar hearings in Chicago public school gyms or field houses by using temporary walls to create separate rooms.

Brian Doherty, who served as 41st Ward alderman at the time of the 2005 hearings, found it hard to believe the FAA couldn’t find an appropriate spot in the 41st Ward or Chicago.

The FAA’s wish-list about venue “sounds like a dodge to me,’’ Doherty said. “It was a big mistake on their part” not to hold at least one hearing within the noise contour, he said.

“It sounds like there’s a big hole in the donut,’’ Doherty said.

“There are no walls between suburbs,’’ countered the FAA’s Molinaro. “A resident from Wood Dale can drive a few miles to Elk Grove Village for a meeting. A resident from Bensenville can drive a few miles to Elmhurst for a meeting. . . .

“The FAA went above and beyond the guidelines.’’

FAIR’S Charlier called the location of the hearings “sinister” and “strategic.” FAIR has repeatedly complained that many Northwest Side residents didn’t know about the hearings and therefore had no input on the plan.

“It doesn’t matter if it was two miles or 200 miles [from areas due for heavy air traffic]. It wasn’t in impacted areas. There’s no way to see it other than strategic,’’ Charlier said.

“We have a federal agency that is doing bogus hearings. People that are impacted are not even in the loop,’’ Charlier said. “This is an undermining of democracy.’’