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Monday, April 4, 2011

O’Hare Airport – Runway for the Economy of the Midwest

By Michael Fonda (Chicago)

Although it wasn’t able to land the 2016 Summer Olympics, which certainly was a setback for Illinois, the Midwest and the United States, Chicago moved on. It certainly wasn’t going to relinquish its position as one of the world’s most prominent cities.

The key to continuing Chicago’s status as a preeminent center for world trade is O’Hare International Airport. Although there has been unnecessary political wrangling between the City of Chicago and the suburbs surrounding O’Hare Airport and also between the Chicago Department of Aviation and the major carriers, it appears those distractions are over. The modernization of the infrastructure both on and off the airport is moving forward.

If you have always wondered why “ORD” is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and International Air Transport Association (IATA) call sign for O’Hare, here is the answer. ORD stands for Orchard Field. In 1887, Wisconsin Central Railroad opened a depot on the land where O’Hare now sits. The railroad named this depot Orchard Place. Orchard Place remained an unremarkable farming community until June of 1942 when the Army (Air Corp) and the Douglas Aircraft Company, gearing up for war production, purchased 1300 acres for the production of the C-54 “Skymaster”. The new airfield that was part of the manufacturing complex was named “Orchard Field”.

The Chicago area was chosen because it had a skilled workforce, great infrastructure, and it was in the center of the country and thus less vulnerable to attack by our then enemies (who have now become our close allies and great trading partners). These are attributes that the Chicago area still has today. (Since I’m hopeful that we’re done with attacks, let’s substitute the phrase “natural disasters” for the word “attack”.)

Led by Richard M. Daley, Mayor of the City of Chicago, the men and women who are guiding O’Hare in the 21st Century are well aware of the value proposition that this international airport must deliver in order to continue its relevancy as one of the major centers of global trade. The most immediate and impactful improvement that they are making to the airport is called the O’Hare Modernization Program (“OMP”). When construction is complete for this $6.8-billion project in 2014, O’Hare will have eight new runways (six east-west and two crosswind) which will help reduce the present average flight delay of 20 minutes down to six minutes and will expand airport capacity to 300,000 additional flights annually.

O’Hare is currently the 7th busiest air cargo airport in the United States and 17th in the world. Currently, 90% of cargo ramp service takes place at the South Cargo area. Aeroterm, the world’s largest airport facilities leader, will be augmenting South Cargo by developing 840,000 square feet of ramp accessible warehouse facilities on 55 acres in the northeast corner of the airport. With more ramp access, O’Hare is certain to increase its annual airfreight tonnage from its current 1.2 million tons annually. The 1.2 million tons represents $60 billion in annual trade and 10% of air cargo in the United States.

In order for commuters and truckers to have easier access to airport and avoid traffic tie-ups on the current expressways that serve the airport, in 2007 the Illinois Department of Transportation (“IDOT”) proposed the Elgin-O’Hare West Bypass (“EOWB”), which would route traffic from Interstate 294 on the south, around the west side of O’Hare, and to Interstate 90 on the north. Additionally, after 15 years of inaction, IDOT has proposed to finally connect the east leg of the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway to the West Bypass and to a proposed west terminal for O’Hare Airport. This is a $3.4-billion project, which in today’s economic environment seems improbable, yet IDOT may finally complete the task.

Finally, the Chicago Regional Transportation Authority (“Metra”) has proposed the Suburban Transit Access Route (“STAR Line”). The STAR Line (light rail) would connect 100 suburban communities with each other, the City of Chicago and with O’Hare Airport.

With the O’Hare Modernization Program, the Northeast Cargo expansion, the Elgin-O’Hare West Bypass and the STAR Line, Chicago will continue to be one of the world’s premier business centers and will help to drive economic growth in the heartland of the United States.

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