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Chicago Airport Faces Serious Growing Pains

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.

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