Weekly O'Hare nighttime runway rotations could start by May

CHICAGO (STMW) - To better spread out jet noise, O’Hare Airport might start rotating the runways it uses at night on a weekly basis as soon as May under a six-month test approved Tuesday by a special “Fly Quiet” committee.

The group also agreed to shrink the current voluntary “Fly Quiet” hours of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. so that O’Hare can use more than two runways during the busiest of those hours — between 10 and 11 p.m. and between 5 and 7 a.m., the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.

The recommendations of the Ad Hoc Fly Quiet Committee further fleshes out the first plan to provide some nighttime jet noise relief since O’Hare changed its flight paths as part of an ongoing airfield overhaul in October 2013.

Since that big switch, Chicagoans east of O’Hare and suburbanites west of it have deluged the city with millions of jet noise complaints.

The rotation plan, originally proposed by the city last July, could allow residents roughly eight or more consecutive weeks of night peace and the ability to predict, with 75 percent to 90 percent certainty, what weeks they could face nighttime jet noise. However, it does not address daytime jet noise.

The six-month test of the rotation plan still must navigate several hurdles. It faces a March 11 vote by the full Noise Commission, followed by tweaking and approval by the Federal Aviation Administration and then re-approval by the Noise Commission.

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans hailed the vote Tuesday as a “huge success” that could bring relief by summer. London’s Heathrow Airport also uses a weekly runway rotation, city experts said.

However Evans cautioned that the proposal is just the first step in a long process that could take years. It could well change based on FAA input, public reaction during the six-month test period, the addition of another runway and new aviation technology.

“This is a hugely important step today, but it is a gradual, incremental process of improvement,” Evans told reporters during a brief interview after the vote.

The vote came despite the recommendation by JDA Aviation Technology Solutions, a consultant for the Suburban O’Hare Commission, that daily night runway rotations would be easier to achieve. Weekly rotations could be thrown off whack by heavy snows that can stall runway plowing for days, wind direction, unexpected runway maintenance and the operations of up to 27 heavier planes per night that require longer runways, JDA experts said.

The city aviation department’s consultant doubted all 27 “heavies” would need the airfield’s longest runways. He insisted that maintenance could be addressed in a weekly schedule and that wind direction should only interfere with weekly rotations 10 percent to 25 percent of the time.

While all nine members of the Fly Quiet Committee approved the weekly night rotation plan, only seven OK’d the concept of narrowing the traditional Fly Quiet window to between roughly 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and giving O’Hare the flexibility to use more than two runways, if needed, just before and after that window.

Representatives of the City’s 41st Ward and Des Plaines both cast no votes.

“They are altering Fly Quiet,” 41st Ward representative Catherine Dunlap said later. “I’m concerned about narrowing [the Fly Quiet hours] at both ends.”

Throwing another possible wrinkle into the rotation plan is a proposal by Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) demanding that O’Hare keep open two diagonal runways slated for closure unless the City Council votes otherwise. The Council also would have to approve future runway changes under the proposed ordinance.

Napolitano’s chief of staff, Chris Vittorio, said Tuesday that the chair of the City Council’s Aviation Committee, Michael Zalewski, has promised to schedule a hearing on the proposed ordinance by March 16. Zalewski could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Napolitano will be meeting with every alderman on the committee before then, and “we’re optimistic” the ordinance will pass, Vittorio said.

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