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Chicago Airport Faces Serious Growing Pains

October 23, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Ray Suarez examines Chicago O'Hare Airport's battle to increase its capacity and problems with the entire air traffic system.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, “Blueprint America,” our series on infrastructure, produced in collaboration with WNET New York.

We’ve examined roads and bridges, ports, and urban sprawl. Tonight, Ray Suarez from Chicago examines the problems of the nation’s airports.

RAY SUAREZ: From their 260-foot-high perch, controllers in the tower at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport preside over a complex ballet of planes landing, taxiing, and taking off.

It’s the second-busiest airport in the world. And, as any frequent flyer knows, delays at this vital hub can cause travel misery throughout the system. One bad storm anywhere near Chicago and much of the nation’s air travel can come to a standstill.

Bryan Zilonis is an air traffic controller and union official. He says the airport is operating at the margins of what it can handle.

BRYAN ZILONIS, National Air Traffic Controllers Association: Right now, to meet airline capacity, just in terms of scheduling, everything has to be perfect. We have to have a day like this.

RAY SUAREZ: The strains show up in official performance rankings of the nation’s major airports. O’Hare comes out at or near the bottom of the chart, based on the punctuality of arrivals and departures, over the first seven months of this year.

But work is underway on a multibillion-dollar plan to reduce those delays and boost capacity at the airport, which is owned and operated by the city of Chicago. City ownership means the mayor controls a crucial node in the nation’s aviation network.

MAYOR RICHARD DALEY, Chicago: So we’re basically going back to a simple formula: east-west runways, not crossing. So you’re always on time landing, taking off, landing, taking off, 24 hours, seven days a week, even in bad weather, unless it’s so dangerous no one could land.

Plans to cut delays

Robert Sturgell
Federal Aviation Administration
I can point out where we have the problems, where we have the challenges, put pressure on the local leadership, but it really, at the end of the day, it takes the local leadership to build, you know, for the future.

RAY SUAREZ: This new runway, due to open soon after decades of conflict with suburban cities and towns, is just one part of the city's 20-year master plan for the airport, known as the O'Hare Modernization Program.

It's the kind of project the agency charged with the safety of civil aviation supports. At the same time, the top official at the Federal Aviation Administration concedes his power to get them built is limited.

ROBERT STURGELL, Acting Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration: With respect to building runways, it's just a bully pulpit for me. I can point out where we have the problems, where we have the challenges, put pressure on the local leadership, but it really, at the end of the day, it takes the local leadership to build, you know, for the future.

RAY SUAREZ: That future is expected to get progressively busier. The system handled 769 million passengers last year. The FAA expects that number to grow to a billion by 2016 and keep climbing, doubling by 2025.

More crowded airports, airplanes, and skies, hardly an appealing prospect for passengers already facing long lines, delays, cancellations, and lost luggage.

Shae Audette and her husband from Lake Zurich, Ill., are trying to track down their daughter's missing car seat after arriving at O'Hare. Air travel, they say, is becoming harder.

SHAE AUDETTE, Airline Passenger: I think our biggest issue was charging for baggage now, so now we're packing lighter. We have to carry it on, and it was more difficult to find overhead space. And having children, it's difficult, too.

RAY SUAREZ: The FAA's plan to cut delays hinges on the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. FAA officials say there's no way the current air traffic control system could cope with aviation's expected growth, given its reliance on decades-old, ground-based radar technology.

Central to the new multibillion-dollar concept is a move toward global positioning, using satellites, GPS for short.

ROBERT STURGELL: GPS gives us more precision, more accuracy. It's going to allow us to move traffic more efficiently and safer.

Meeting capacity growth

Bryan Zilonis
National Air Traffic Controllers Assoc.
No matter what equipment or technology bring us, if there's no place to put the airplane, there's really no piece of equipment that's going to change that landscape.

RAY SUAREZ: In addition to a reduced risk of accidents, other advantages cited include cuts in noise, pollution, and fuel consumption.

At its core, NextGen would provide a much more accurate, real-time picture of an aircraft's location, allowing planes to fly closer to one another and yet remain in safety.

The Air Traffic Controllers union complains that NextGen does not address what it calls a current crisis in staffing levels, as a wave of veteran personnel retires to be replaced by controllers with less experience.

Union officials also argue that better management of planes in the air is only one piece of the puzzle.

BRYAN ZILONIS: First and foremost, we need more runways. We need places to put aircraft. And no matter what equipment or technology bring us, if there's no place to put the airplane, there's really no piece of equipment that's going to change that landscape.

RAY SUAREZ: For its part, the FAA is pushing for better ground infrastructure, while warning some parts of the country are heading for trouble.

ROBERT STURGELL: As we look, you know, five, six, seven years from now, Southern California and San Francisco's Bay Area, we don't see a solution coming down the road for those that's going to meet the projected capacity growth.

You can't wait until you've got a problem to solve the problem; you've got to look out into the future and get these things online. It can take anywhere from, you know, 5 to 10 years to build a runway.

Battling Bensenville

Gail Flores
Resident of Bensenville, Illinois
It's like walking on eggshells, so to speak, because you don't want to really put too much more in because you don't know. You know, are they just going to say, 'Well, get out?' Who knows?

RAY SUAREZ: It can take that long because of places like Bensenville, a small town right at the edge of O'Hare. This neighborhood, now largely abandoned, is the focus of a bitter six-year legal battle over the airport's future. It's a reminder of the price communities are asked to pay to benefit others.

In a highly controversial move, the city of Chicago took legal action to condemn hundreds of homes in this neighboring jurisdiction to make way for airport expansion.

Most residents sold their homes and moved on, but a few holdouts are hoping for an 11th-hour legal reprieve to save the places they've invested in.

GAIL FLORES, Resident of Bensenville, Illinois: It's like walking on eggshells, so to speak, because you don't want to really put too much more in because you don't know. You know, are they just going to say, "Well, get out?" Who knows?

I'm hoping not, because, I say, this is America. I believe it's America. And, you know, I don't think they can just come and take your home.

RAY SUAREZ: It's the latest round in a decades-long struggle between Bensenville and its giant neighbor, Chicago. Critics of the expansion argue the city's plans will never find full funding and wouldn't have the beneficial impacts its proponents claim.

Prominent opponent John Geils sees the real solution to congestion as the modernization of O'Hare and the development of a third regional airport.

JOHN GEILS, President, Bensenville Village: There's no need to devastate a community with the high-handedness of the city of Chicago to make an airport plan a reality that's not going to meet the need of reducing delays and increasing capacity for the region.

Complications in infrastructure

Richard Daley
Mayor of Chicago
Federal laws, federal laws, rules, regulations, court decisions and private lawsuits, it's very complicated. And I think we have to have a rethinking of the complications that we have in infrastructure in America.

RAY SUAREZ: Raising the temperature of the debate still further is the fate of St. Johannes, a church cemetery now surrounded by O'Hare. Consecrated in the mid-19th century, the graveyard is slated for forced relocation to make way for airport expansion.

And this controversy, too, is the subject of a lengthy fight in the courts.

As a big-city mayor responsible for the airport's future, Richard Daley calls for a longer term vision and a simplified process when it comes to upgrading the nation's major infrastructure.

MAYOR RICHARD DALEY: Federal laws, federal laws, rules, regulations, court decisions and private lawsuits, it's very complicated. And I think we have to have a rethinking of the complications that we have in infrastructure in America.

RAY SUAREZ: Complications which, in the case of O'Hare, have national implications. And for as long as they remain unresolved, passengers across the country can expect more travel uncertainty at the nation's airports and in its skies.

JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow night, we conclude our series with a look at Boston's Big Dig and a discussion about big government infrastructure programs.