Months of discussions on creating an overnight runway rotation at O’Hare International Airport hit turbulence after federal officials warned Tuesday that one option for incoming jets was potentially unsafe.
The caution to members of the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission came as a “bombshell” to some but a minor obstacle to others in the group attempting to evenly distribute nighttime jet noise around the region. At issue is landing aircraft overnight on Runway 9-Center, which is under construction and scheduled to be completed in 2020 on O’Hare’s north airfield.
“We do have some concerns” about using 9-Center for nighttime arrivals, Federal Aviation Administration Regional Administrator Rebecca MacPherson said. “It’s really important that you not just assume the FAA doesn’t have a problem with arrivals on 9-Center.”
Those statements were an unpleasant surprise for noise commission members from towns like Bensenville and Wood Dale, where some neighborhoods are beset by jet noise from takeoffs and landings on O’Hare’s south airfield.
“It’s kind of a bombshell,” Bensenville Village Manager Evan Summers said. “This is three years’ worth of work where we anticipated using the north airfield to provide relief” for residents.
Runway 9-Center is located near hangars used for aircraft maintenance at night. To reach the hangars, some jets would need to cross one end of the runway, and that could conflict with planes landing when pilots require the entire length of the runway, McPherson explained.
Another concern is that fewer air traffic controllers work at night; officials don’t want to add to their duties by having them monitor planes landing on and crossing 9-Center for maintenance.
The FAA does not expect departing aircraft on 9-Center to pose a problem.
“It seems today is a turning point,” said Dan Dwyer, a member of the Fair Allocation in Runways Group. “Our worst fears that limited options would remain — absent Runway 15/33 — seem to be affirmed by the FAA,” he said referring to a demolished runway that typically handled flights in a northwest direction.
The noise commission’s Fly Quiet Committee has been tasked with choosing runways to be used in a weekly rotation once O’Hare’s expansion is completed in 2021.
“It’s all new, there’s no road map,” committee chairman Joseph Annunzio noted. “We’re writing the manual right now, and it’s too important to throw up our hands.”
The Chicago Department of Aviation is expected to request the FAA do further analysis of 9-Center’s use at night.
Meanwhile, Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee said that 9-Center and the extension of another north runway would “balance not only between the north and south airfields, but also east and west.
“Additional east/west runways will provide the opportunity to decrease operations on existing runways and existing flight paths and therefore spread out the impact of aircraft noise,” Rhee said.