Altered flight paths could cut O'Hare noise for thousands

CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) - Thousands fewer residents could be affected by nighttime jet noise if planes altered their flight paths — sometimes by as little as 30 degrees — after they depart O’Hare International Airport, consultants for the Chicago Department of Aviation said Monday.

For example, about 5,500 people — instead of 27,300 — would be under a night-flight corridor if pilots made a 30-degree change in their flight path after departing westward from runway 28R, which runs parallel to Lawrence Avenue, a consultant told the Chicago Sun-Times.

When planes depart to the east from the same runway, 46,000 people — instead of nearly 73,000 — would be hit with night jet noise if such flights veered south starting a few miles outside the airport, said city consultant Doug Goldberg of Landrum & Brown. Instead, such flights head straight out over the city of Chicago.

On Monday, city officials provided the most details to date of how different O’Hare flight paths and runway procedures could diminish the effect of night jet noise. Goldberg gave a special Ad Hoc Fly Quiet Committee of the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission two new critical pieces of information to help its effort to re-examine O’Hare night flights.

The first was a map that counted the number of people affected by various city-suggested flight path alternatives — but only for departing flights.

The second new piece of information was a hypothetical one-year calendar showing how a different set of O’Hare runways could be rotated each week, over an eight-week period, roughly between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., to alternate the impact on homes under night flight paths.

London’s Heathrow Airport produces a similar calendar, city experts said.

If ever approved, the O’Hare night runway calendar could help residents plan to hold outdoor events on days when the runway affecting them would not be active. It could give them an idea on which holidays their homes could be subject to heavy jet traffic.

During each weeklong rotation, one runway would be used for arrivals and another for departures between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., under the proposal outlined Monday by Goldberg.

However, the rotation probably would not occur during the shoulder hours now considered “Fly Quiet” hours, Goldberg said. Instead, due to heavier traffic at those times, a third runway would be added to the mix between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. and again between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., he said.

Despite the new information about the number of people affected by departing flight paths, no such details were given for homes impacted by arriving flights. Arrivals have heavily affected Chicagoans since O’Hare began using mostly east-west parallel runways in October 2013. Since then, 70 percent of all arriving jets have approached O’Hare over the Northwest Side of the city.

Chicago Ald. John Arena, who represents hard-hit 45th Ward homeowners on the Fly Quiet committee, said the flight path map illustrated the “huge opportunity” the committee has to diminish night jet noise.

However Al Rapp, a member of the Fair Allocation in Runways citizens coalition, noted that to reduce noise the city was recommending a series of angled paths from parallel runways when it could achieve the same result merely by flying straight out of one of the diagonal runways: 14L.

“We’re not doing that,” snapped Assistant Aviation Commissioner Aaron Frame. He said 14L is closed and “on its way” toward being decommissioned.

Rapp later urged the commission to decide whether it wants to recommend keeping 14L open during the “interim” period — until a still-unfunded parallel runway opens in 2020 — that the Fly Quiet Committee is studying. FAIR contends 14L and another diagonal due for decommissioning should stay in the mix as long as possible to help distribute jet noise.

In addition, airlines have not signed off on adding the next parallel runway, the construction of which the city insists would require that diagonal runway 14L be ripped up.

Schiller Park Mayor Barbara Piltaver, a Fly Quiet member, noted that both FAIR and the Suburban O’Hare Commission have put other suggestions on the table that include keeping open the diagonal runway the city wants to close.

“How are we supposed to reach consensus if Chicago is still dead set on closing certain runways?” Piltaver asked the group.

In fact, Suburban O’Hare Commission consultant Craig Burzych told Monday’s gathering that 15 years of wind records indicate that 68 percent of the time, the winds at O’Hare are minimal enough to allow use of any runway — parallel or diagonal.

Aviation Department officials have been insisting for several years that 70 percent of the time, the wind at O’Hare blows from the west and because planes must land into the wind, about 70 percent of arrivals must come in from the east — usually over the city — before landing, usually on parallel runways.

Other Suburban O’Hare Commission recommendations include barring pilots from using visual flight rules to land at night to ensure they stay at the higher altitudes required by instrument flight rules for as long as possible.

Several miles before touchdown, pilots on visual approaches merely must stay 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle, instead of the 4,000 feet required in Fly Quiet night instrument approaches, said Burzych, a former O’Hare air traffic controller now with JDA Aviation Technology Solutions.

Allowing visual approaches, Burzych said, amounts to “cutting a pilot loose. He can do what he wants.”

FAIR leaders contend that Fly Quiet committee chair Joseph Annunzio, of Niles, and Chicago Department of Aviation officials were too “dismissive” Monday of other proposals to keep O’Hare’s diagonal runways.

Analysis by consultants for the Suburban O’Hare Commission “validate what FAIR has been saying for over two years. The regular people were right all along,” FAIR leader Colleen Mulcrone said.

The O’Hare overhaul plan that “got so much wrong has to be fundamentally fixed,” she said.

Fly Quiet committee members had been expected to wrap up their work by now but have yet to vote on any recommendations. Their next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 25.

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