O'Hare opens latest new runway in decadelong modernization

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CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago's O'Hare International Airport opened a new runway and air traffic control tower Thursday, completing the latest piece of a nearly $9 billion overhaul of its outdated airfield.

For more than a decade, Chicago has been untangling O'Hare's six crisscrossing runways and rearranging them in a safer, more efficient side-by-side layout that's supposed to unclog one of the nation's worst aviation bottlenecks. Yet delays still ensnare passengers traveling through the hub, and O'Hare is generally ranked dead last for on-time performance among the country's 29 biggest airports.

Speakers at Thursday's commissioning avoided making specific promises on delay reductions, emphasizing instead that improving O'Hare's efficiency is a plus for the country's aviation network and for Chicago's aspirations to be a center of global commerce and innovation.

"There is nowhere in the world and nowhere in the United States you can't get to multiple times daily from the city of Chicago, weather permitting, and we are working on that in the City Council next week," joked Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

With the $516 million runway, O'Hare now has five of its six planned parallel runways. The new airstrip is on the airport's southern edge, separated from the terminals by 20 minutes of taxiing. It will be reserved primarily for arrivals during "east flow" weather patterns, which occur only about 30 percent of the time. It has its own $41 million control tower.

The runway will allow controllers to continue to land more than 100 planes an hour at O'Hare even when winds shift direction, said Michael Whitaker, deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.

"So those delays that happen from that particular weather will be eliminated," he said. "This is an important improvement not just for O'Hare but for our entire air traffic system."

The last new runway, which opened in 2013, allowed planes to begin taking off and landing primarily in a side-by-side pattern. But the city's promises of a 50 percent reduction in delays have not followed.

Whether the newest runway chips away at O'Hare's persistent delay problem, it does help put to rest fears that the airport would be unable to keep up with growth in U.S. air traffic, said Joseph Schwieterman, an aviation expert at Chicago's DePaul University.

"With fuel prices staying in check, we could see big growth in the next few years," he said.

The runway marks the completion of the middle phase of O'Hare's modernization program.

The city and the airlines have yet to reach a deal on the final $2.3 billion worth of work — another new parallel runway, a runway extension and a new taxiway.

Projects completed so far have been paid for with a mix of airport revenue bonds, passenger fees and federal grants. Airlines have paid the debt service on the bonds.

O'Hare, which opened to commercial air traffic in 1955, will keep two of its remaining diagonal crosswind airstrips. The old runway formation was conceived to allow pilots to take off and land under different crosswind patterns; aircraft technology has largely eliminated that need.