There has been a long standing rivalry between the airports of Chicago and Atlanta for the title of “most busy” airport in the world. The rivalry has been ongoing but it should be pointed out that this is in terms of flights, not passengers. As Atlanta currently handles over 100 million passengers, O’Hare handles close to 80 million passengers. In terms of flights or “departures” though, Atlanta handles just over 882,000 flights a year where O’Hare handles over 875,000 flights a year. That might not seem like a big difference but that means on average Atlanta handles over 2400 flights a day or about 100 flights an hour. That however could be changing.
Playing second fiddle may not be in the cards much longer for O’Hare, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a few days ago that O’Hare would be building 9 additional gates that will start off a major reorganization and expansion of the airport. Over the past decade there has been a huge amount of construction to reshape the arrivals and departures to and from O’Hare to allow more flights. The majority of this construction was to align most of the runways in the same direction while adding additional runways to support future growth. The end result is 6 parallel runways allowing for multiple arrivals and departures at the same time.
So, why is this a big deal?
Chicago has been plagued with delays for decades. O’Hare holds the title of “International Gateway” for both United Airlines and American Airlines, and that makes O’Hare a huge economic driving force for the entire Chicago area. With O’Hare expanding it means less delays, and if done correctly it can mean that Chicago would be a prefered location for companies to do business. If the airport can also reduce and remove a stigma for being known delays then important business passengers will choose to connect in O’Hare further strengthening the local economy.
What does the expansion include?
The first part of the expansion is 9 gates that will be added to terminal 5, the terminal handling the majority of foreign airlines for international flights. These gates will begin construction and be operational in 2019, just under 3 years. Most notable of these are the plans to add an additional gate that will be able to accommodate the largest of passenger jets, the Airbus A380 which can carry up to 600 passengers. That may not seem like a big deal, but if two full 600 seat Airbus A380s operated one flight each daily that would mean close to an additional half million people per year arriving and close to another half million departing. That is a lot of passengers.
The next part, the Second Phase, is a little more exciting, especially for anyone who has spent any length of time in Terminal 2 an aging facility that is far past its operational capacity. The current plan is to completely redesign terminal 2 into the main terminal building and into a “modern” airport. From terminal 2 there will be a long concourse built extending out. In addition, an extension would be build at Terminal 1 on United’s B concourse, and then possibly build as many as 3 additional terminals that would have to be connected by an underground transportation system. The new plans would mean that once everything is completed it would triple the number of gates it currently operates, to over 500. That gives way to allow a huge amount of expansion of both adding flights and a large increase in passengers.
It should be noted however that the Second Phase hasn’t been financed yet, but the airport authority is in talks with all the airlines who operate into O’Hare discussing future operations and how to finance the expansions, the one thing that all the airlines can agree on: they all want more gates.