By Jon Hilkevitch

The outcry over jet noise from O’Hare International Airport that reached a fever pitch over the last year and a half is likely to intensify further this summer when takeoff and landing simulation data becomes available ahead of a new runway opening this fall.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected within the next four months to release a preliminary report based on thousands of computer-generated flight simulations involving what will become O’Hare’s fifth east-west runway and a subsequent runway that the city plans to open in 2020.

The testing also takes into account the closing in August of one of O’Hare’s four diagonal runways.

All this work, however, might not bring relief after a record year for O’Hare jet noise complaints. The simulations are aimed in part at finding the best way to squeeze in hundreds more daily flights at the airport.

Suburbs expected to hear more jet noise as the result of the 7,500-foot runway opening this fall include Bensenville, Franklin Park, Wood Dale, Bloomingdale and Addison, FAA and city aviation officials say.

“Now what they are creating is basically an abusive situation,” Bensenville Village President Frank Soto said Friday. “It’s already unlivable at times.”

The simulations model a variety of weather conditions, flight-delay trends and passenger travel times, factors that will help officials understand how new air-traffic configurations will affect safety, noise and air quality in nearby communities, officials said.

The FAA will solicit public feedback on the soon-to-open runway and possibly hold hearings this summer. A few weeks later, the agency will approve use of the airport’s fifth east-west parallel runway — on land annexed from Bensenville — in time for its scheduled Oct. 15 opening, aviation officials said.

The runway is part of the city’s O’Hare Modernization Program, the overall goal of which is to increase the airport’s capacity to at least 1.2 million flights annually, or to roughly 3,000 daily, up from an average of about 2,400 flights a day now. Officials hope to reach the threshold without a continuation or worsening of the chronic delays that two runways built since 2008 have failed to eliminate.

FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro acknowledged the brief window for the public and local governments to digest the information and offer input, which he said was due in part to the timing of city approval of related contracts.

City aviation officials declined interview requests for this story.


Another runway

The city is also pushing ahead with another east-west parallel runway, which city aviation officials say would cost an estimated $1.7 billion and in five years could be the sixth and final east-west runway under the airport modernization program.

Chicago has told the FAA that construction will begin in 2018, officials said, even though American Airlines and United Airlines have long said and continue to say demand doesn’t warrant it and the city hasn’t said how it would be financed.

O’Hare spokeswoman Karen Pride on Friday confirmed that simulations are underway involving the proposed airstrip, which would be north of the passenger terminals, but she said the city can’t discuss the results until they are complete.

The ongoing simulation work is described as an “experimental design” in internal documents prepared by the city’s contractor, Ricondo & Associates Inc. The documents are labeled in a way that shields them from Freedom of Information Act requests, which the Tribune has filed, and other public scrutiny.

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Chicago, whose district includes the O’Hare area, said he opposes the runway scheduled for 2020 and that his top priority concerning O’Hare is the jet noise problem. 

“Realistically, I don’t see a need in our lifetime for that runway,” Quigley said.

Last year, for the first time since 2004, O’Hare ranked No. 1 in the world in terms of total flights, at 881,933 aircraft movements, according to the FAA. But O’Hare also took last place for on-time arrivals among the 29 busiest U.S. airports, and second-to-last place (ahead of Midway Airport) for departures, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Last year’s record number of jet noise complaints also came with public skepticism about the transparency of the process to increase flights at O’Hare while protecting the lifestyles and property values of affected residents in Chicago and the suburbs.

Pride said: “O’Hare is committed to being a good neighbor by balancing the economic benefits for the region with quality of life for Chicago’s neighborhoods.”

But many residents inundated with noise from low-flying planes since O’Hare flight patterns were altered in late 2013 say they are especially wary about the upcoming changes because of the limited information released in the run-up to the first round of air-traffic modifications.

The addition of more parallel runways will solidify procedures that the FAA first implemented in late 2013 directing nearly all O’Hare flights to operate either east to west or west to east.

The forthcoming runway will be used for arrivals and departures, according to city aviation officials. The flight path off the east end of the runway will be between Irving Park Road and Montrose Avenue.

It was originally chosen to be the last runway built when in 2005 the FAA approved the plan submitted by the city aviation department under Mayor Richard M. Daley. The initial computer modeling done beginning in the early 2000s to assess how the airport would perform, on measures ranging from safety to efficiency, was based on the original sequence of runway construction.

But the ordering was later reshuffled. Soto, the Bensenville village president, said he believes the far south runway is being built now to justify Chicago’s forced annexation of several hundred acres in Bensenville for the expansion project and avoid the prospect that the properties on which homes and businesses were demolished would never be used for a runway.

“If they went ahead with the original plan and built the other runway first, there would have been a perception that they did not need (the Bensenville runway),” Soto said. “So they switched to counteract a perceived impression.

“I am hoping Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel appreciates the fact that what he inherited and how it was done may have not been in the best interests of not just the neighboring communities, but also Chicago,” Soto said. “I hope it sends a message that a lot of people are unhappy.”