Why O'Hare is America's most dangerous airport--and why it will get worse

And Midway is Number 12

A new study based on Federal Aviation Administration statistics shows that O'Hare International Airport is the nation's most dangerous airport.

The study is based on the number and potential severity near-collision between airplanes incidents at the airports.  (See the full methodology.)

Travel and Leisure Magazine, which conducted the study, cited a previously reported 2006 incident in which United Airlines Fllight 1015 , speeding down a runway for takeoff narrowly avoided crashing into an Atlas Air 757 cargo plane taxing directly into its path. (The Tribune has reported extensively on such runway "incursions," but this is the first time that I've seen a comparative list compiled of all America's airports.)

But after the magazine did a public service by spotlighting the  problem, it incorrectly  tells fliers that O'Hare is taking steps to make it safer  by saying "a $6.6 billion modernization plan scheduled for completion in 2014 will realign O’Hare’s runways into a much safer configuration."*

This isn't true. If anything, O'Hare "modernization" will make the airport even more dangerous.

It will do this by dramatically increasing the number of runway and taxiway crossings. Such crossings greatly inflate the opportunity for collisions between airplanes taxing back and forth to the terminals and airplanes landing or taking off on active runways. In fact, the FAA says the most dangerous part of flying isn't in the air, but on on the ground, thanks to opportunities for incursions.

Chicago aviation officials repeatedly deny that's a problem, pointing to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport that has a similar pattern of parallel runways supposedly like that planned for the O'Hare expansion. As Tribune transportation reporter John Hilkevitch noted in a November 21, 2005 article the City's O'Hare expansion czarina (my word)--Rosemarie Andolino likes to entertain "audiences by placing a map of the expanded O'Hare alongside the a map of the existing DFW."

Hilkevitch goes on to explain why the comparison is bogus:

The centerpiece of the overhaul planned for the Dallas airfield is a system of perimeter taxiways that loop around the runways. The FAA provided funding for the plan in August [in 2005].

Planes that have landed [at Dallas] will move swiftly along the outskirts of runways, rather than across them, to reach the terminals. The taxiways will reduce potentially dangerous runway crossings by aircraft from 1,700 a day to no more than a few hundred, airport and FAA officials said. They will also help to reduce the number of planes on the runway waiting for crossing planes to clear before they take off.

Under O'Hare's expansion plan, though, runway crossings will jump to 2,100 a day from about 100 now, according to the FAA. [My emphasis.]

"Dallas has had a number of close calls over the years, so they are doing something about it with the perimeter system," said Craig Burzych, president at the O'Hare control tower of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Instead of being proactive by trying to reduce runway incursions, which the FAA says are the No. 1 danger at airports, Chicago's plan is like playing with fire."

The FAA said it is working with controllers and the airlines to implement safe procedures at the expanded O'Hare to deal with the increase in runway crossings. One proposal would require planes to taxi behind aircraft sitting on a runway rather than in front whenever possible. [How much more time will this add to your trip?]

"Perimeter taxiways are a good idea, and whenever it is possible, we should do it," said Barry Cooper, a top FAA manager who headed the team that approved O'Hare expansion. "Unfortunately, we don't have the real estate to do it at O'Hare."

And why doesn't O'Hare have the real estate to do it? Because it's a 7,000-acre airport--small  by today's standards--that was designed for 1950s and 60s aviation technology. O'Hare is hemmed in by communities that have been there for years; taking their land would be too expensive and controversial to be considered a realistic option. How telling is it that the only large land acquisition for O'Hare expansion resulted in the destruction of the largest and most successful community of affordable housing in DuPage County? But who cares about that? Certainly not Bob Schillerstrom, DuPage County Board president who sold out his opposition to the expansion for political payola.

O'Hare shares this landlocked problem with Midway Airport, a 1930s-designed facility ranked 12th most dangerous facility in America, according to the Magazine. (Here's why.) It's just that O'Hare's problems are larger and more dangerous.

The Chicago region had (and still has) an opportunity to build an airport that would be a true 21st century facility, virtually free of these problems. Three states (including Illinois), the FAA and transportation officials had agreed to build it where plenty of land was available in the south suburbs, but former Mayor Richard M. Daley couldn't allow all those jobs and contracts generated by the new airport to slip out of his grasp. Daley, in the most masterful political move of his entire tenure, "put a brick" on the new airport. Sadly, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is just as enthusiastic for O'Hare expansion as is Daley.

The Chicago Way above all, and to hell with the risk posed to millions of airline passengers.

Disclosure: Some years ago, I was a consultant to organized O'Hare expansion opponents. Yes, you could say it colored my opinions, but I became intimately familiar with the evidence, pro and con, about the expansion. That included the conclusions of independent aviation officials hired by the opponents that confirmed the on-ground dangers of O'Hare expansion. And here, we haven't even gotten into the dangers posed by the expansion's increased air traffic in the skies over Chicago.

*The magazine also was wrong about the cost and completion date. The $6 billion figure was the city's original, publicly stated and deceptive cost estimate. After heated pressure, it agreed that the "real" cost was about $14 billion. That didn't include such mega-costly projects such as the Elgin-O'Hare expressway extension and bypass road. We're talking about $20 billion or so, and that doesn't include inflation. The 2014 completion date is a pipe dream; the airlines are balking at spending any more money on the expansion. Even if they do, the expansion could never be completed by 2014. Daley was hoping to have it done by 2016 for the Olympics, another one of his pipe dreams.

For a white knuckle depiction of the potentially dangerous O'Hare runway incursion, go here.

Here is the full list of airports ranked by their danger:

1.       Chicago O'Hare

2.       Cleveland Hopkins

3.       Los Angeles International

4.       San Francisco International

5.       Honolulu International

6.       Miami International

7.       Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International

8.       Phoenix Sky Harbor

9.       Boston Logan

10.   Dallas/Fort Worth

11.   Chicago Midway

12.   Denver International

13.   Charlotte Douglas

14.   Philadelphia International

15.   Newark Liberty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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