Chicago International: The region needs an aviation Master Plan (and here are some ideas to go with it)

The O’Hare Modernization Plan (OMP) has been the cause of great excitement over the future of one of the most important airports in America and of a great PR disaster once residents began experiencing the resultant jet noise. Planning for the future of O’Hare will never be an easy feat; it has to remain competitive, but grow in highly constrained conditions. Planning O’Hare’s future occurs in an irresponsible vacuum though. Any future planning must be fashioned in relation to external elements at Midway Airport on Chicago’s Southwest Side and increasingly in relation to a potential third airport in the region. At this point an aviation master plan for Chicago is needed. The development of one would be a huge boon for the city as it would probably coalesce a number of transportation and economic planning projects into one more cohesive vision of future transportation in the region.

Earlier this spring, the Chicago Tribune ran a multi-page feature by transportation columnist Jon Hilkevitch comparing O’Hare with Shanghai’s Changi Airport--a tale of two airports–and it wasn’t a pretty picture of O’Hare. It ate away at the brief joy that followed O’Hare’s renewed position as the busiest airport in the world based on take-offs and landings and did a lot to remind Chicagoans that while we may be home to a great and important airport, we’re also home to one that needs a lot of work to catch up with international rivals in terms of quality customer experience. Indeed, the article opened the flood gates for renewed debates about the airport’s multimodal connections as well. One of the worst problems facing O’Hare’s future and ability to perform doesn’t even seem to be O’Hare’s problem per se, rather a fundamental lack of regionalized planning in relation to aviation.

Much of the problem lies in the competition for tax dollars between the states of Illinois and Indiana. The obvious, although oft ignored, site for a third airport in Chicagoland is Gary. Located just southeast of the Loop, Gary/Chicago airport could easily be transformed into a commercial airport. A soon to be completed extension of its main runway (one of two) will push that potential future. Tax dollars generated from this plan (which a city like Gary could use) wouldn’t benefit Illinois as directly though, and so the proposal for an airport in far south suburban Peotone was born. It will never be built. If anything it has merely diverted attention away from actually achieving anything like a functional third airport serving Chicago.

A bi-state, region-wide master plan for how to grow and support Chicagoland’s aviation industry has to be the next step. And it can’t ignore Gary.

Granted, the funding for such a project might be hard to come by considering the current fiscal and political situation in Illinois, it is nonetheless well within the realm of possibility and could be absorbed into the work of existing organizations, both public and private. Ideally, such a plan will scrap pie in the sky ideas like the Peotone airport, which will probably die alongside the Illiana Tollroad, which is failing to get the support former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn may have hoped for (you can sign a petition here against it), and focus on reasonable alternatives. (Like Gary/Chicago.) The plan can’t focus just on the distribution of air traffic at regional airports though. In reality it would probably be wiser to look at such a master plan more as an intermodal transportation plan aiming to improve how people get in and out of the region.

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Gary/Chicago Airport seen from the air with the Chicago skyline in the background. The airport is extending its main runway west. The terminal facilities are on the north end of the airport and the South Shore Line runs just to its south.

Wisely, proposals to turn Gary/Chicago airport into a functioning commercial airport includes the development of a multi-modal transit center adjacent to the airport where connections could be made to coach buses, Amtrak intercity trains, and the South Shore line (an interurban running between Chicago and South Bend, IN). Future growth in this area would have to include high-speed rail and the potential for new services offered by the South Shore Line or Metra. Indeed, future development of a regional rail systems around the proposed CrossRail Chicago may include a modern airport rail link similar to ones in London, Beijing, and soon Toronto, that connects regional airports to Chicago’s Loop central business district and the three main airports themselves.

Such a plan would likely woo the support of multiple organizations and communities looking to improve transportation options in the region and multimodal connectivity. Gary/Chicago has also already won the support of the City of Chicago, which according to a summary produced to assess the viability of commercial operations at Gary/Chicago included fiscal support from Chicago. Investing in a viable third airport is certainly in the city’s interests too and something that plays into recently re-elected Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push for growth in tourism in the city and maintenance of the city’s strong convention industry. Much of that of course revolves around how well O’Hare can perform. How a third airport would affect O’Hare needs to be seriously considered too, because this could vastly change how the facility functions and brings the airlines O’Hare into the conversation much more.

One upshot of a third Chicago airport is that it increases air traffic capacity in Chicago. Again, the reason why Gary remains such a strong contender is proximity to Chicago and the potential for strong transportation connections. A master plan though could help do more than just make a plan to increase capacity, but change air traffic movements in a masterful way. O’Hare would regardless remain Chicagoland’s primary airport and international gateway.

With growing interest from large international air service providers such as Air New Zealand and Philippine Air too how travels move through the airport is going to be as important if not more important than how many enter and leave. Codeshare agreements play a big role in this, because they make it incredibly easy to connect between flights on different airlines. A master plan might work to guiding a future reconfiguration of O’Hare that includes organization of airlines based on their airline alliance and in the current three domestic* terminals and international terminal, much like Miami International. For example one could be given over to the Star Alliance, one to SkyTeam and to Oneworld. In the latter case that would put American Airlines (AA) in the same terminal as Air Berlin, BA, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, JAL, Qatar Airways, and Royal Jordanian, or the easy movement of passengers from international flights to domestic connecting flights on AA without the need to change terminals.

This would likely be best achieved by moving operations of one or more smaller airlines to Gary/Chicago from O’Hare not only giving it commercial viability, but allowing it to support itself beyond use as a center of charter and infrequently scheduled services, as recommended in the summary mentioned above from 2010. What that means for O’Hare though is fewer passengers, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Increasingly in-airport comforts are drivers of an airports success and fewer passengers means more room to expand food and shopping options as well as entertainment and relaxation options.

It’s normal to hear news cycles about O’Hare’s ranking as an airport in the United States. And it’s great to be able to boast that the busiest airport in America is here, but quantity and quality are vastly different things. Great as it is that O’Hare is busy, the quality of the experience increasingly is a big a player in an airport’s desirability factor. But, it should also be considered that O’Hare and Midway collectively account for more than 90 million passenger movements a year and taken together would mean Chicago is the world’s second busiest airport. Improving transportation options and intermodal connections across the board and the region could become one of the busiest transportation centers anywhere in the world, if it isn’t already. A master plan is essential to guide that growth and development though. Smart decisions shouldn’t be held back by political boosterism, truly conceivable plans are there (they just need a push), and at the end of the day sometimes quality trumps quantity and by leaps and bounds.