ORD’s noise problems and Chicago’s Airspace Problem may be solved by the South Suburban Airport

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The two below articles are seemingly unrelated, but in fact, the promise of one may, in the long term, address the problems of the other.

The airspace in and around the Chicago Metropolitan Area is among the most congested in the world. The stationary points of two commercial hub airports (O’Hare and Midway) and a very busy Chicago Executive (PWK) creates tightly spaced approach and departure patterns intertwined among these three fixed points. Add to that, major, low level general aviation corridors (planes from North East, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast avoiding the waters of Lake Michigan, which further occupy the air traffic controllers assigned to manage the traffic overflying  this geographical area).

The intent of the O’Hare Modernization Plan was to increase the ground capacity at that airport. It did not expect the airspace, nor could it, to expand. Yes, the NextGen technological enhancements will facilitate the movement of more flights by greater navigational precision, better management of the flow, more efficient arrival/departure patterns, etc. However, that ATC development will add flights, but will not spread them out. It is not possible to inflate the geography; consequently more flights will fly over the same ground.

Remember: part of the basic capacity limitations for this region is attributable to the proximity of three airports. Objective analysis of the Chicago Air Traffic density is much alike the New York Metroplex airspace issues. There’s a lot of demand without a lot of wiggle room.

There may be ways to minimize the immediate impact by reconfiguring some of the geometry of the airspace, by considering operating parameters for flight patterns, increasing residential sound insulation, etc. These types of remediation could create substantial improvements for the neighbors.

A study of both “short term and long term solutions to increased noise pollution resulting from new traffic patterns at O’Hare International Airport” has been advocated by Rep. Quigley, R-IL. There are indications that such a study will be initiated.

The current capacity constraints and noise situation will exacerbate over time. Chicago wants, if not demands, that its airport(s) will continue to be major connections with the national and international economies for the foreseeable future. The FAA forecasts traffic growth for the next twenty years. Even if the City of Chicago paves over all of the ground of the Northwest Suburbs, those new runways will be insufficient for the expected levels of flights. Additional flights can only be addressed by extending the ORD banks and cramming more flight in these hours. That traffic management will likely increase the noise for the communities surrounding ORD.

An analysis conducted in 1986 by Professor Stanley Burge of Northwestern University identified the Peotone site as the long term capacity solution. It made such sense that even Mayor Daley in 1967 endorsed the concept in his Inaugural speech. During the O’Hare Modernization, it was noted that ORD’s capacity would be constricted in the not too distant future and that the South Suburban Airport (SSA) would be an appropriate immediate complement and a source for Chicago’s long term capacity needs. At least two Governors have supported this position.

SSA’s location has sufficient separation from the existing airports to actually add to the usable airspace to serve Chicago. That was borne out by the FAA’s recent analysis, referenced in the press release of Rep. Kelly, D IL. She summarizes the FAA’s study as stating that “the integration of (the) proposed SSA in the Chicago metropolitan airspace structure is feasible… with minimal impact” to existing airports.  The report does acknowledge that the FAA would likely alter regional flight patterns in the future if the new airport were to expand.

That essentially means that the addition of SSA is not a zero sum solution. Rep. Quigley might consider SSA as a site that will attract, in the immediate term, airlines which will want to avoid ORD’s delays and high operating costs. Rep. Kelly already sees the value of SSA to her district and Chicagoland. Both Rep. Quigley and Rep. Kelly should endorse SSA as a long term answer to Chicagoland’s air transportation long term needs and a noise mitigation option for the ORD neighbors.

It is rare when Congresspersons of different parties may exhibit unity on a single solution to separate problems. SSA may be such an unusual policy option.

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